A matter of access and inclusion

The low compensation for a sizable and growing workload makes it near impossible for many to participate on Brattleboro’s Selectboard. A vote to raise these stipends could let more people serve our town.

BRATTLEBORO — This Saturday at Annual Representative Town Meeting (ARTM), town reps will have a chance to take a simple step to make our town government more inclusive and accessible.

Will we take that opportunity?

The Selectboard is a powerful body that makes important decisions which impact everyone who lives, works, uses resources, and travels in Brattleboro; however, the job itself is accessible only to a minority of the population. Selectboard members make either $3,000 or $5,000 per year for a sizable amount of work that seems to only be increasing.

This makes it challenging and near impossible for anyone with a low-paying or minimum-wage job, or with a lot of student debt, or with a lot of dependents they are responsible for - such as children or elders - to join the Selectboard.

This is a clear and easily corrected example of how poor and working-class people are excluded from Brattleboro's local politics.

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Over the past year, we've had many community-wide conversations about how to make Brattleboro a more inclusive and diverse place for people of color, for youth, and for the LGBTQ population, all of whom are statistically shown to have access to fewer financial resources as well as carry more debt than the rest of the population.

Increasing the annual stipends for Selectboard members is essential - but by no means sufficient - to making our local government more accessible to a broader swath of the population.

At the 2020 Representative Annual Town Meeting, Tim Wessel gave a “conservative estimate” of 35 hours per month of Selectboard work, which means he's earning $11.90 per hour as chairperson. (A non-chair Selectboard member is earning $7.14 per hour at this rate of work.)

While his ability to volunteer those hours is both admirable and much appreciated, the vast majority of people in this town would not be able to commit to that time expectation at that pay rate, as many people at the 2020 ARTM testified.

We have spoken to a number of people over the past few months who said they'd be interested in running for Selectboard but can't afford to do so, because it would mean cutting out paid work that they rely on.

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Here are some steps that we think we should take:

• We propose increasing the annual stipends for the Selectboard to $10,000 for the chairperson and to $8,000 for other members.

This could be offered on a sliding scale based on income or overall wealth of the Selectboard member.

It could be more explicit and easy for a Selectboard member who does not feel they need the extra stipend to easily not take it (such as happened for the Safety Review Committee last fall).

• Should we consider adding term limits as an appropriate or possible way to address the concern about “professionalizing” these positions?

One of the objections to increasing the stipend that was raised at 2020 RTM was a concern that paying the Selectboard a living wage would “professionalize” the role, potentially opening up their seats to corrupt career politicians “just like in D.C.”

• Should Selectboard members receive a cost-of-living increase each year (usually 3.5 percent)? Should they receive increases when other town staff members receive across-the-board increases so there isn't such a long gap between pay increases?

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We believe that paying a more adequate wage will make serving on the Selectboard more inclusive and accessible, rather than promoting power-hoarding, and that some of the ideas above could address that concern.

This change would have long-term impacts on our town beyond the tenures of these Selectboard members, and we hope that their successors can come from a broader pool of people than are able to access this important role today.

We hope that our town will choose to raise these stipends to make participation in our local government more accessible - a meaningful step in the interest of fostering further inclusion and diversity within our town.

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