Just say ‘no’ to a mayor in Brattleboro

For a host of reasons, ballot question is a bad idea for the town and its people

BRATTLEBORO — On Election Day, March 3, voters will have the opportunity to tell the Selectboard to consider replacing the five-member board with one mayor.

The complete wording of the article that will appear on the ballot: “Shall the voters of the Town of Brattleboro advise the Select Board to amend the Brattleboro Town Charter to replace the Select Board form of governance with that of a mayoral form of governance?”

I encourage voters to reject this proposal for a number of reasons.

Installing a mayor will concentrate too much power in one individual. Dismantling the Selectboard will reduce equity and accessibility. Having one mayor, versus five Selectboard members, will increase divisiveness. The timing is poor. The idea's supporters are sowing confusion about the role of the town manager. And the organizers of this idea have not presented adequate information to support this proposal.

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We currently have a combination of direct and representative democracy.

The town's form of government divides the power to determine and execute municipal matters among three entities: the five-member Selectboard, the town manager, and Representative Town Meeting (RTM). This is dictated by Vermont statute and our town charter.

Voters vote for Selectboard members and RTM members. The Selectboard appoints - hires, supervises and, if necessary, fires - the town manager. Various committees of registered voters appointed by the Selectboard also work on many aspects of the town's governance; they make recommendations to the Selectboard and RTM.

As per our Town Charter, RTM can have up to 140 elected members; each of the three districts in town receives three members for every 180 voters. Some issues all voters decide directly, through Australian (paper) ballot. Others get decided by our elected officials.

Any changes - additions, amendments, repeals - to the town's ordinances may be drafted by the town manager's office but are decided only by the five-member Selectboard.

Items like the annual budget, and whether the town invests in major capital needs - like building a new police facility - are worked on by numerous people but are ultimately reviewed, and approved, amended, or rejected by up to 140 people.

Do you think it's appropriate to consider changing this system to one where one person makes all of these decisions?

Do you know if that's what the proposal includes?

If you don't know if that's what the proposal calls for, do you feel comfortable voting on this article on the ballot?

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Having a five-member Selectboard means five different individuals get to be elected to run our town. Although more progress could be made to encourage and support people of color, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people to run for the Selectboard, sharing this responsibility takes some pressure off of being “the first” or “the only one” of your group to step up and declare your candidacy and present yourself as qualified for leadership.

One noticeable aspect of who tends to seek political office is that people who already believe they are entitled to power will try to keep it, or get more of it. In our country, that historically means a very limited demographic.

If we reduce the number of elected officials for our municipal government, we are reducing equity in, and accessibility to, political power in our town.

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Regardless of which political party you choose, you doubtless have noticed that we, as a nation, have become more divided.

One thing I appreciate about our town manager, Selectboard, and Town Meeting representatives is that I have no idea whether they vote Democratic, Republican, Progressive, or any other party. My support of them has to do with their actions, decisions, conduct, and character.

When the Selectboard and RTM vote on decisions, there is no “reaching across the aisle.” There is no aisle. We all sit together.

I don't know if a mayoral candidate will need to declare membership in a political party. But this much I know: they will likely need to seek the financial and organizational backing of an established political party to fund and run their campaign.

In these divided times, do you think it's a good idea to bring party politics into our municipal government? Even when Selectboard and RTM members disagree, generally there is discussion and compromise, which is how democracy works when it works well. How would we achieve that when one person is making the decisions? Do you believe this increases democracy?

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Many entities - the Selectboard, Representative Town Meeting, the Town Manager, and other high-level municipal staff - are working diligently on a big handful of major issues affecting the town. And in many of these areas, they are making progress, even if it's slow and deliberate (which, again, is good for democracy).

Regardless of where you stand on the issues, you likely notice our town's roads, bridges, and buildings are aging; we have more visibly poor people than we have had in the past; the middle class is precarious; opioids are harming many people; factories have closed and retail is struggling; and the weather isn't what it used to be.

It's a really bad time to go fudging with the entire governmental structure of our town.

I think the Selectboard - and the Legislature, which ultimately addresses charter changes - has more important things to do right now. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

One of the justifications of this proposal, according to its organizers, is that the way the town hires a town manager isn't fair. The town manager is appointed by the Selectboard, which, board members note, means only three of the five board members have to vote “yes.” Proponents argue that it would be more fair to allow all eligible voters to select a mayor.

But the equation is wrong. It's incorrect to liken a mayor to a town manager.

What powers a town manager has are dictated by statute and our charter. In our charter, the Selectboard's duties take up 4.5 pages. In comparison, the Town Manager's duties take up half a page.

A lot of the statutory description of a town manager's powers is about restrictions or prohibitions to that person's power: they can do x, except when some other elected official is already doing x. Basically, a town manager can purchase supplies, supervise public buildings and their repairs, act as road commissioner, oversee town departments' accounting, collect taxes, and do what the school directors ask them to do.

The town manager - a manager, not a legislator - serves at the pleasure of the Selectboard and performs the functions as statute and our charter allow.

Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see a dangerous, power-mad dictator who must be stopped.

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The aspect of this proposal that gravely concerns me is the lack of transparency about the proposal itself.

The organizers have been quite spare in describing their plans for installing a mayor. Certainly they've had time to come up with details and present them to the Selectboard, or the public, or both.

Before you vote on this proposal, wouldn't you like to know the following: Do they want to get rid of the Town Manager's office? Representative Town Meeting?

Instead of a Selectboard, will Brattleboro have a city council? Will the mayor be a “strong” or a “weak” mayor - meaning, how much power will this person have to conduct the town's affairs?

The organizers of this idea have used their resources to pay people to collect voters' signatures to get this item on the ballot - to promote a specific agenda about what is right for Brattleboro. The organizers gave their paid canvassers money - which, technically, is not illegal - and scant information on the proposal to answer potential signers' questions.

Why have they not used their resources to fully explain this proposal? Why have they not gotten people together from a wide swath of the town's population to introduce this and find out what they want?

If the purported idea is to increase democracy, paying someone to ask voters to sign something that would radically change town governance, and distract an already burdened Selectboard, and radically concentrate power, without offering any details, comes across as authoritarian.

“Sign and support this vague idea because I know what's best for Brattleboro” seems to be the message, and it's not one I can support.

I hope you'll join me in making that statement at the polls on March 3. Just say “no” to a mayor in Brattleboro.

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