BRATTLEBORO — Energy, innovation, and deep experience in city governance brought Yoshi Manale to the position of town manager last fall, replacing Peter Elwell, who had served in the role for many years. For a small town with city problems - crime, substance use, homelessness, and poverty - it seemed that Manale would bring new vision and direction to town administration.
It did not work out that way.
Last week, Manale and the town Selectboard reached a “mutual agreement” that he would resign under terms in his contract that afford a substantial settlement. The last day of work for the town manager, who started Jan. 1, is Friday, June 3, making his tenure all of five months and three days as a municipal employee.
The question of what went wrong is veiled behind the confidentiality of personnel matters.
According to Manale's severance agreement, he will receive half his annual salary ($60,000). He also will receive accrued vacation time ($3,565.01) and up to $6,000 in moving expenses.
Under Manale's contract, if he “resigns following a written or oral offer to accept resignation from a majority of the governing body,” he is entitled to the severance.
Town officials confirmed that Manale resigned amicably under these circumstances and that the alternative - dismissing him with cause - could end up costing taxpayers far more if litigation were to ensue.
In 2009, the town settled a lawsuit from former Police Chief John Martin, who was fired in 2007, for $275,000, which in today's dollars would amount to $368,500.
Manale, who had previously worked in city government in Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, declined an interview with The Commons, pointing to his May 20 public statement that accompanied Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow's announcement of his resignation.
In that statement, Manale said that he had not anticipated how the lack of anonymity in a town of 12,000 residents would create such pressure.
“Until I took this position in Brattleboro, the smallest community I worked in was almost five times that of this town,” Manale wrote. “The larger populations afforded me anonymity that I did not appreciate until now.”
“I am not the right fit for this position,” he wrote.
A reporter who had covered Manale in Trenton told The Commons that he was surprised by the idea that a lack of anonymity was the issue, given that Trenton's state and local politics are a fishbowl.
“He got into a couple of things over here [in Trenton] that were way more controversial than anything with the EMS contract over there,” said the reporter. “So that really doesn't make sense to me.”
He also said that his interactions with Manale, which were often complex, were always “cordial and professional.”
Every local municipal source The Commons spoke with said that the parting of ways was amicable, and nobody had anything negative to say.
“He was always professional with me, and I was professional with him,” said Fire Chief Leonard Howard.
'It's just not the way it happened'
Manale's resignation comes on the heels of the Selectboard's decision to end the town's contract with Rescue Inc. and shift coverage to Golden Cross while it builds EMS capacity in the Brattleboro Fire Department, which already handles about half of the emergency medical calls that 911 takes in.
The decision, which the Selectboard approved by a unanimous vote, followed fierce and often bitter debate - on the streets and online - about whether the negotiations with Rescue had been handled well by Manale, who took a hard line on costs.
Town officials emphasize that the controversy is wholly separate from the resignation.
Selectboard member Tim Wessel noted that the EMS issue had been on the table for more than a decade and also said that the town's ambulance controversy had nothing to do with the mutual decision that the board arrived at with Manale.
“Anybody who understands the history of Rescue Inc. and Brattleboro understands that for more than 20 years Brattleboro has been talking about and considering and dancing around the issue of, well, we have this professional fire service, we have a large town with a lot of need, and it might make sense to combine services,” said Wessel.
“The idea that somebody from [New] Jersey comes in and pushes us towards this is very inaccurate,” he added. “It's just not the way it happened.”
'Utmost confidence' in Moreland
In the meantime, town department heads do not see the loss of the top municipal employee as a crisis.
“This will have no impact on my department,” said Police Chief Norma Hardy.
Patrick Moreland, who has served as the assistant town manager for 12 years, will take over as the acting town manager until a new person is hired, as he has done before.
“I have the utmost confidence in Patrick's ability to serve as interim town manager,” said Jessica Gelter, a new member of the Selectboard.
For his part, Moreland said that he is confident in the administrative team that manages the town.
“In the time I've been here, I have to say that this is the most effective management team,” he said. “We've got a combination of people with long-term experience at the town of Brattleboro, and we've got some new staff like [Finance Director] Kim Frost or Chief Norma Hardy.”
“And each of these people comes with a high degree of honest and integrity,” said Moreland. “And I think together working with them we can effectively keep local government working while the Selectboard conducts its search.”
One board member, speaking on background, hopes that the next town manager will be as innovative, but maybe more “boring,” while also noting that the town had 80 applicants in the last search.
The board is likely to use the same search firm as it did in the previous search, and may get a price break because of the brevity of Manale's tenure.
“I feel very confident in saying that the full board recognizes how important a responsibility this is, for the Selectboard to find the next town manager,” said Goodnow. “We're not going to sit on our hands; we're going to get to work on this as soon as we are able.”
“I can tell you that I'm very disappointed that it happened like this,” said Gelter. “And we're really looking forward to bring in a town manager like Yoshi, with lots of ideas and who is coming with some great skills and talents and experience to take Brattleboro to the next step.”