The power of listening

Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag moves on after a challenging decade

BRATTLEBORO — “There isn't a department head that hasn't taught me something,” said Town Manager Barbara Sondag, sitting in her office on the second floor of the Municipal Center, her desk covered by an organized chaos of paper,

Looking back on her nearly 10 years as town manager, Sondag says she knows more than she ever imagined about the cost of one linear foot of sidewalk, fire suppression, and the value of a snowless winter.

She leaves Brattleboro to take a position as city manager in Olivette, Mo., a town of 8,000, on July 23. Stepping up to replace her for the time being, effective that date, is Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, who said he is not yet interested in seeking the job permanently.

Known for her sense of humor, Sondag jokes she pushed on the finance director a lot during her tenure.

“Why can't we?” she has asked Finance Director John O'Connor. “And when will [anybody] find out?”

Sondag laughs. Only on rare occasions has she won that argument.

Sondag took the position of Brattleboro's assistant town manager in the fall of 2003. She became town manager in 2007.

New to the area from the Midwest in 2003, Sondag also received a job offer in the private sector. Sondag decided she preferred the public sector, and hasn't looked back.

She said she enjoys working with people and that every day presents new challenges.

“[There's] so much exposure to so many different things,” she said.

When asked about the moments of joy and challenge working in the public sector, Sondag replied, “Sometimes there's a fine line between those moments.”

Projects in the public sector can take years to complete, but she said it's a great feeling when a long, slow plan comes together. But long projects also come with “bang-head-here” moments of changing policy, funding, public complaints, or changing leadership, she said.

People slide in and out of any planning process and everyone is busy, she said.

“How do you continue to remind people this is what we're doing and why we're doing it?” Sondag asked rhetorically.

The role of Town Manager has grown essential to the fabric of a town, she said, explaining that “the world's more complicated.”

In Vermont, the position is dictated by statute. Before a town can have a town manager-form of government, it must be approved by the voters.

Sondag said a town manager's most important duties are to remain informed on town issues and - more importantly, she joked - to stay out of trouble.

Sondag said she routinely makes decisions and policy outside her realm of experience.

“I need to be able to say [to co-workers], 'Tell me if I'm wrong; I think we need to do this; tell me what will happen,” she said.

In Sondag's opinion, a healthy democracy deserves - and demands - debate.

“No one is served by having a board or citizenry that rubber stamps [decisions],” Sondag said.

“Decisions are better if you have a little more input,” she said. “It's a slower process, but it's important to have the buy-in from people.”

Sondag said she has learned to ask questions rather than to operate on assumptions.

Every decision has reasons behind it that usually made sense when it was made, she said.

“We didn't get here by mistake,” she said. “Even the decision not to make a decision is a decision.”

Sondag points to building a municipal budget as a time she asks a lot of questions. Fortunately, she said, department heads always took the time to explain why they asked for each line item.

Moving for family

The job in Olivette will mark a return to the region Sondag lived before moving to Brattleboro. She still has family in the area.

Sondag and her partner, Kathryn Porterfield, have three children.

Two of the couple's children live on the West Cost; one lives on the East Cost. Living in Missouri will situate the couple within three hours of either coast by air.

Porterfield, a nurse practitioner at the Brattleboro Retreat, says she is considering a career change or taking time off.

Sondag anticipates her new position as city administrator in Olivette will be similar to what she provides for Brattleboro. Olivette has a city council, mayor, and population of 8,000 spread out over three square miles.

Brattleboro had 12,049 people on 26 square miles, as of the 2010 Census.

Working relationships with neighboring towns will likely prove different, however. According to Sondag, Olivette is in a more densely populated area where towns bump against each other, appearing as one continuous city.

In Windham County, towns can operate within “silos,” as they're greater in land mass and have more distinct identities, she said.

One unknown of the new position, said Sondag, is her co-workers. She's only spoken with them on the phone so far.

Prior to working for the Town of Brattleboro, Sondag was assistant director of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission in Champaign, Ill., from 1997-2003. She holds a BA in political science with a minor in business from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is a certified human resources professional.

Trial by fire

Sondag started her career in Brattleboro working alongside former Town Manager Jerry Remillard.

“He was great to work with,” she said.

Sondag moved into the role of Town Manager during an upheaval caused by financial problems and a state and Federal Transit Authority investigation into the town's management of the Transportation Center. Remillard resigned, and it was up to Sondag and then-Finance Director John Leisenring to bring order out of the chaos.

Sondag describes this period, 2003 to 2006, which she calls “that time,” only as “hard.”

Former Selectboard chair Dick DeGray worked with Sondag for seven years and was one of the board members who voted to appoint her as Town Manager. He remembers Sondag filling multiple roles at the time and that there was “a lot of unrest in the community.”

Of the hard time, DeGray said, “I give her great credit for handling a difficult situation with class.”

DeGray said he believed “without a doubt” that Sondag was the right person for the job, and that she's leaving the town in better shape than she found it.

Sondag immersed herself in the job, he said. She made a point of working with all constituents and taking the time to understand all issues.

During the multiple crises that for many here defined 2011, Sondag “showed her mettle” and leadership, he said.

“The community should be thankful for the job she did,” he said. “We will always be indebted for all she did.”

DeGray wished Sondag well, adding that she's “always welcome to come back.”

Focus on financial rebuilding

Instead of dwelling on the chaos, Sondag focuses on the financial rebuilding that occurred after Remillard left and the town hired Leisenring, who retired in 2011 after five years as finance director.

“I am proud of the fact that we're in real solid financial shape right now,” said Sondag.

A benefit to the “hard time,” she said, is the entire municipality and Town Meeting Members have a better understanding of how municipal finances work. Meeting members also understand the value of maintaining a fund balance - surplus monies - that helps the town operate in emergencies without loans.

The town used its fund balance to respond to the damage of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“Trust is particularly important in the public sector,” she said. “Trust is always needing to be re-established and rebuilt.”

Sondag said she feels proud of the strides the town has made in implementing a new GIS mapping system, and how the town approaches economic development.

The town now sees itself as a partner in economic development initiatives, she said, and it understands that economic development no longer means erecting smoke stacks.

“That's somewhat of a culture change,” Sondag said. “I think that's exciting.”

It's all about trust

Sondag values her working relationship with selectboards past and present.

It's crucial to work with mutual trust, she said, as you can never underestimate the value of honest feedback and allowing everyone to tell people in authority when they're on the wrong path.

This has helped the town remain successful.

“I've always known where I stood with various folks I've worked with,” she said.

The horrible year of 2011 - marked by the Brooks House fire, a shooting of a Brattleboro resident in Dummerston, an employee shooting at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, and Tropical Storm Irene - tested Brattleboro to the max, she said.

Instead of curling into a fetal position, the community worked together – and fought forward.

“People were looking for action, and that makes a difference,” she said.

“People really care about each other,” Sondag said. In her mind, this empathy “enabled us to stand firm.”

Despite the trials and tribulations brought by Irene, Sondag said she feels proud of how well the town weathered that storm and its aftermath.

As Sondag reflects, she admits to occasionally wishing she had done something “better,” particularly on personnel matters. Even if the outcome had been the same, she said, she wishes the town had gotten to the outcome differently.

'It's the little things...'

In the middle of the hard times, however, Sondag has moments that make her smile, if not shake her head in awe.

“There are so many moments,” she says with a laugh. “It's the little things.”

Such as the outcry over public nudity in downtown Brattleboro in 2006 and 2007, and how she said she would sit at a Selectboard meeting and think, “Wow. Okay. We're talking about this again.”

Or sometimes Sondag would receive a suggestion, question, or scolding from out of left field and think, “Really? I didn't see that coming.”

A town manager walks an interesting line with the Selectboard, in Sondag's view: The board is boss, but the town manager often has a better grasp of statutes, town budget, and projects.

“It's absolutely a push-pull,” she said. “And it should be.”

“[Selectboards and town managers] are better if our feet are held to the fire and we get questions,” Sondag said.

“A strong board is a board that can disagree,” make a decision, and then move on, she said.

An inability to disagree respectfully in a debate, and turn the page as colleagues as respectfully, weakens a board, she said.

In Sondag's view, board members serve because they care about the town. She respects this commitment.

Here Sondag laughs, adding that she is also grateful she doesn't have to vote publicly and then bump into constituents in the grocery store.

“The town's lucky we've got good people in place” for hiring the next town manager, she said.

Some work unfinished; other work celebrated

Sondag will leave some larger projects unfinished, notably the estimated $14.1 million police-fire facilities upgrade project.

“[That project] is all about the health and safety of our employees,” she said.

Sondag said she feels the town is in good hands with a strong citizen oversight committee and engineering team.

She helped lead the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) when it started. She has seen it build momentum, forge new relationships, and shift the region to a more economic development-positive culture.

Regionally, “We all get to ride on the coattails of each other's successes,” she said.

Another long, slow process - building a regional economic development strategy - has also proved messier than anticipated. But Sondag said she hopes the process will continue to grow and develop new public-private relationships and a common language for regional economic development.

Sondag says she arrived in Brattleboro as a “good generalist” with the ability to catch on quickly, and a strong grounding in finances.

She adds she will leave Brattleboro as a better listener.

“You can really trust the citizens to make the right decision in the end,” Sondag said.

Voters need good information and reasoning, she added, “But you really can let [angst] go and let good decisions be made.”

Working in a public arena, Sondag has also developed a flawless poker face.

In her early years sitting at the Selectboard table during the bi-monthly meetings, Sondag said Public Works Director Steve Barrett often sent her texts: “You're rolling your eyes.”

“Listen,” Sondag advises the next town manager. “Listen to the people who will be working with you and for you.”

As well, listen to the citizens and ask questions, she urges.

Sondag says she hopes that after she leaves for Missouri, people here will say, “She left us a little bit better.”

And she hopes that the next town manager will achieve more and leave the town in even better shape.

“It's been a fun run,” she said.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates