Who is making the policy?

Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting has made spending decisions in line with the Community Safety Review Team Report’s recommendations. But did it do so intentionally?

WEST BRATTLEBORO — Leading up to Brattleboro's March 20–21 Annual Representative Town Meeting (ARTM), the one issue I was cogitating most extensively about was the relationship between the body's Human Services budget and the Community Safety Review Team's report (CSRTR).

The intersection of these two topics, however, did not fit squarely into any article on the warning, and so it never actually came up. I would, however, like to raise this publicly now in the hopes that it will generate a useful exchange of ideas.

We can start by bringing up some of the recommendations in the CSRTR - specifically, four of them that had to do with “spending” and “investing” issues and are, I believe, the ones potentially most relevant to RTM's Human Services budget. These can be found on page 162 of the report; alternatively, they are numbered 13, 14, 16, and 17 in Town Manager Peter Elwell's Feb. 25 summary of the report.

I will quote just the first of these: “Prioritize spending on safe housing for all, food shelves, free meals, community gardens, land trusts that allow marginalized people to take ownership of food production for their communities, and spaces for belonging and connection in neighborhoods to all community members, centering those most in need.”

In a presentation to the Selectboard, Peter Elwell also laid out approximate timelines when each of the recommendations might be taken up. According to his judgment, every one of these four recommendations could at least begin to be addressed in fiscal year 2022, i.e., the year beginning July 1, 2021 and ending June 30, 2022.

The board took up Elwell's summary at its March 2 meeting. By that date, the ensuing discussion was not lengthy, and a motion to authorize town staff to move forward on implementation of the recommendations from the CSRTR was approved unanimously.

In his CSRTR summary, Elwell also included some notes on each of the recommendations. Most relevant for the matters I am bringing up is that his remarks for 13, 14, 16 and 17 begin with: “This will involve policy decisions to be made by the Selectboard and Representative Town Meeting.” [Emphasis added.]

This was an interesting assertion because the RTM warning did not include any article where the Town Meeting members would actually deliberate on the CSRTR. RTM does, however, have detailed purview over one related portion of the budget, the Human Services allocation to area nonprofits.

Its Human Services Review Committee scrutinizes applications from nonprofits for funding - and does an excellent job doing so - and then recommends spending levels on those requests to the RTM. For FY22, the committee recommended $276,400, spread across 29 nonprofits, which recommendation was approved by RTM.

Do the programs of some of those nonprofits serve the needs as listed in recommendations 13, 14, 16 and 17 of the CSRTR? Yes, many of those nonprofits do operate in realms like safe housing, free meals, restorative justice practices, and other services listed in the four recommendations.

So RTM, through the mechanism of its Human Resources budget, is in fact supporting some of the needs brought up in the CSRTR, and in time for the FY22 budget/spending year.

Is it, however, doing so intentionally, or just as a byproduct of funding area nonprofits that might just organically serve a portion of community safety needs anyway?

Since there were no formal protocols that tied the Human Resource Review Committee's scrutiny to the recommendations laid out in the CSRTR, I think you can say the RTM to this point had made no direct policy decision in support of the CSRTR.

Another aspect at play was the review by RTM's Finance Committee. Its excellent report states at one point that “the Human Services [Review] Committee is not the appropriate body to address these systemic problems” (i.e., these systemic community safety problems).

I am not sure why the Finance Committee decided to make that statement or, more exactly, what they meant by it. It does seem in conflict with Peter Elwell's CSRTR summary, which, again, stated that spending needs in relation to at least four recommendations involve policy decisions partly made by RTM.

RTM, however, did not turn to him for advice on the CSRTR - the Selectboard did. So RTM can choose to accept or ignore his remarks.

Did the Finance Committee fear that the Selectboard will bring pressure on the Human Services Review Committee to allocate funding based more exclusively on the community safety needs listed in the CSRTR? That is not clear.

I would recommend having the Human Services Review Committee look over the CSRTR and Elwell's summary thereof and consider whether it is appropriate to make some adjustment to the protocols it uses for determining which nonprofits it will recommend funding for and at what levels.

For example, do they think it appropriate to add some priority points to any nonprofit's application for funding if the nonprofit serves one of the needs listed in the CSRTR, such as safe housing, free meals, or restorative justice practices?

Also, I think it would be good for the Finance Committee to examine its stance in the matter, or at least to explain its reasoning more clearly.

To add to the overall mix, during the Other Business portion of the RTM, two nonbinding motions passed, each of which could be interpreted as the body endorsing a policy in support of the CSRTR:

• Alex Fischer very specifically proposed that any increased spending that the Selectboard might approve in the coming year not be in conflict with the CSRTR.

• Fhar Miess, more widely, resolved in part that RTM “supports the work of the Community Safety Review Committee and the Town's implementation of the recommendations.”

Whether or not we realized it, since we did not have a copy of these sometimes lengthy motions in front of us, we certainly did seem to go on record supporting the CSRTR.

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