Candidates look beyond local issues

Candidates look beyond local issues

In Brattleboro, activist groups challenge prospective Selectboard members at forum

BRATTLEBORO — This was not a typical candidates forum, the candidates at the forum were not typical candidates, and the questions presented to them were not typical queries about potholes and property taxes.

Those were the takeaways from the Feb. 23 Selectboard Candidates Forum at the Brattleboro Municipal Center.

Put together by Green Mountain Crossroads, Post Oil Solutions, Vermont Workers Center, Brattleboro, Rights & Democracy, Groundworks Collaborative, and Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, the two-hour forum was heavy on social-justice concerns.

A standing-room-only audience in the Selectboard Meeting Room challenged the candidates on issues such as climate change, diversity in the town's workforce, economic inequality, and protecting the rights of all residents.

Incumbent David Schoales, who is running unopposed for a three-year seat on the Selectboard, was joined by the three candidates for the two one-year seats - Davey Cadran, Brandie Starr, and Tim Wessel - who are vying to replace Chair David Gardenstein and Dick DeGray, who both chose to not seek re-election.

Cadran grew up in Brattleboro and is a 2006 graduate of Brattleboro Union High School. He previously served on the Development Review Board and Planning Commission, and was a Representative Town Meeting member.

“I love this town and care about it a lot,” he said. Making Brattleboro a more affordable place to live and helping new businesses grow are among his priorities.

Starr is a relative newcomer to town politics. She became a Town Meeting Representative last year and used to be the assistant Town Clerk in Newfane. She is the executive assistant to the CEO and marketing director at Brattleboro Savings & Loan.

“I want this town to be forward-thinking, and to take care of its citizens in a holistic and uplifting way,” she said.

Wessel, a filmmaker and the owner of Vermont Films, moved to Vermont 16 years ago. When it comes to issues of housing availability and affordability, he said he has experience as a renter, an owner, and a landlord in Brattleboro.

“I see issues from a lot of perspectives,” he said.

Schoales has been on the Selectboard for four years and on the Town School Board for eight years.

He said he's coming back to the board mainly because he wants to see the town follow through on several important projects, like making town buildings more energy efficient and finding new sources of revenue to take the pressure off a residential tax base that is shouldering more of the load than ever before.

He was also excited about seeing so many people at the forum, which was broadcast live on BCTV.

“We've never had this many people in the room, not even for the skatepark,” Schoales said.

Hard questions

Vermont Partnership Executive Director Curtiss Reed Jr. started his question with a statement that shocked many in the room: The town of Brattleboro doesn't employ a single person of color on its municipal payroll, despite 8.6 percent of its citizens identifying as persons of color.

Schoales couldn't say why this is so and wasn't aware if the town had any sort of affirmative action plan in place, but added the town should make it a priority to seek a more diverse workforce.

Starr mused whether “living in a town where you don't see yourself represented in the majority” makes it harder for people of color to see themselves represented in those positions.

Wessel said it would be useful if the board would “be an advocate for groups that are trying to accomplish something” and be “a little more friendly and welcoming.”

Cadran said outreach was the key, as well as the town's valuing diversity. “It's not just smart from a moral standpoint, it's smart from a business standpoint,” he said.

Daryl McElveen of the Vermont Workers Center spoke of the role that Vermont town governments used to play in providing social services for the poor. He asked whether the town would support funding expanded access to health care for low-income residents, such as increased funding of the Brattleboro Walk-in Clinic.

While Starr said she was willing to look at the idea, Wessel tempered that thought with the idea that the Selectboard is limited in what it can do.

“A concern of mine is the effect that hugely high taxes have on the taxpayers right now,” Wessel said. “Every initiative has to be looked at as an investment. Investing in our community's health is a great investment, but we have to berealistic about the extent to which the Selectboard has control, and the money to spend, on such programs.”

Cadran agreed, to an extent: “There's a lot of things we'd like to do, but we're thrown up against the reality of what we can afford to pay.”

Energy and infrastructure

Tim Stevenson of Post Oil Solutions asked about Brattleboro's response to climate change. Again, Wessel argued that the town's role in the matter is limited, but agreed with Schoales that the town must continue to follow through on the energy-efficiency steps to which it has already committed.

Cadran said Brattleboro and Vermont as a whole are “doing far above what the rest of the nation is doing” but “it doesn't mean our job is done.”

“We can't control everything,” Starr said, “but we can do something about infrastructure.” She suggested that making streets safe for pedestrians and cyclists should be the first priority whenever work is done on a town road.

Schoales said Brattleboro can play a role in “providing a living model” of what a post-carbon town would look like.

Brenda Siegel, representing the citizens group Rights & Democracy, asked about the feasibility of a living wage policy for Brattleboro employers.

Cadran said it was a great idea, but he was concerned about how it would affect small businesses. “Jobs are hard to find in this town, especially one that pays well,” he said.

Starr said the bigger question was the type of economy Brattleboro wants so it can have jobs that pay a livable wage.

“We used to be a mill town and we were proud of that,” she said. “That is gone. What are we going be now? We're a tourist town and that's awesome, and we're an arts town and I get to have the pleasure of enjoying that, but that is not enough.”

Wessell said the town has had success in attracting new businesses, such as Commonwealth Dairy, and in retaining existing businesses, such as G.S. Precision, but that Brattleboro's future lies in being “a hub for right-sized businesses,” or businesses “where you know the owners, and they know you.”

Abby Mnookin of Green Mountain Crossroads brought up the ongoing uncertainty over rights and protections for LGBTQ people in the U.S. under the Trump administration, and whether Vermont would continue to be a leader in upholding civil rights for all.

“This is a welcoming town, and we intend to keep it that way,” said Wessel.

Starr agreed, and said she was “comforted to know that this state will fight.”

Putting on his school board hat for a moment, Schoales said the state Department of Education was committed to upholding Vermont's policy of nondiscrimination, and that students who returned from school vacation this week would see the same policies in place.

For Cadran, the current controversy reminded him of when he was younger andin the process of discovering his gay identity during the 1990s, the era of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy in the armed forces.

He said he was upset with President Trump's executive order on Feb. 21 rescinding LGBTQ protections put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. He said he was even more incensed about the use of the phrase “states rights” to describe the reasons for weakening those protections.

“It is the exact same argument used during the Civil Rights struggle and the same-sex marriage struggle,” he said. “It is what conservatives fall back on when they are losing the fight and the tide is turning.”

Other concerns

The referendum question on banning the use of plastic bags at Brattleboro stores and establishments was generally supported by the candidates. Cadran said Amherst, Mass., has a similar rule and that it worked well there.

That led to a query about the future of recycling in the Windham Solid Waste Management District with the closing of its Materials Recovery Facility later this summer.

Schoales stressed that recyclables will still be collected at the District's Old Ferry Road facility, and that curbside collection of recyclables in Brattleboro won't change. The only difference will be the end of the collection boxes on Fairground Road near the Public Works Department's garage.

When asked about raising the pay for selectboard members, all four said they wouldn't support an increase.

On another question on the March 7 ballot, regarding Brattleboro signing on to a global charter to become a “compassionate city,” there was general support from the candidates but, again, that support came with cautions about the limitations of a selectboard in dealing with issues such as federal immigration policy.

The final question of the night came from Shela Linton of the Vermont Workers Center, who asked the board about taking a moral stance on issues, having accountability to one another and the people they serve for taking such a stance, and if they were willing to view their decisions through the lens of social justice.

In short, what is being done for whom, whom does it benefit, and what is actually being supported through any given action?

“We serve at the will of the people and we have a responsibility to work hardest to lift up our most vulnerable and our most disenfranchised because if everybody is not on the same playing field, we're not coaching the right game,” said Starr. “We are not going to let each other slip up.”

“I'm not a perfect person,” said Cadran. “We depend on the people to educate us. We want to be here as a board that is accountable.”

“There is no reason I would come on to a Selectboard for $3,000 a year and become some kind of ogre,” Wessel said. “We are here because we want to give back to our community, and I think whoever you vote for, in this case, the town is going to win.”

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