Not how things are done in Brattleboro

Yoshi Manale’s brief tenure highlights a paradox: the town needs quick, decisive action on a number of urgent and difficult problems. But our town government is set up to discourage that approach.

BRATTLEBORO — I've covered a lot of stories that were difficult to report, but after weeks of covering now-former Town Manager Yoshi Manale's resignation and associated events, I have to say that this has been the most challenging.

Part of the reason? No one will talk on the record, except to say nice, innocuous things.

That's because everyone who knows what happened between Jan. 1, when Manale began work, and June 1, when his contract ended after a resignation clause in his contract was invoked, can't talk about it publicly.

It essentially amounts to a non-disclosure agreement - “NDA” is an initialism we all have seen a lot in the past years. Everyone who knows anything here is bound by one.

I know almost the whole story - other than some missing pieces and perspectives, the timeline is clear. I can't use any of it since all the multiple sources I have are off the record.

So I've got a story but I'm not going to be able to tell it. Maybe it will all come out eventually, but our job is to respond to the needs and interests of our readers. My job is to do my best to bring light, not heat.

So here are a few things that I do know, that I can share.

* * *

Manale's resignation was overall amicable and fair. No one is grinding an axe that I can see. To say that the fit was not right is accurate, and there is no obvious blame and certainly no smoking gun.

When I first started reporting the story I told my editor, “This isn't Watergate,” and that's just true.

The most accurate analysis I can give is that maybe the town was not ready for Manale and maybe Manale was not ready for the town.

Brattleboro will get a new town manager, learning from this experience. The ability to bring in the same level of energy and thinking as Manale's seems important, but maybe the town should seek someone with more experience in smaller settings like ours, with the complexity of our arcane governance system.

In the meantime, the management of the town is sound, with a deeply experienced interim town manager, Patrick Moreland, and strong department heads.

Steady-state management and inertia of existing systems is not enough to deal with the problems that the town faces, which was why Manale was hired in the first place. Crime, drugs, homelessness, housing, and rural poverty all require attention at a strategic level.

The town system is as competent as it can be in the face of managing these issues, but more will need to be done, and that will require some form of leadership.

Manale will certainly get a new job after taking some time to decompress and think things through. His skill set and experience are obvious - he has played in the major leagues, and it is easy to see why the Selectboard hired him.

It seems certain that in his brief stint in Brattleboro, he has learned some things that will help him better negotiate small municipalities that are different from a place like Trenton, N.J. He will land on his feet.

* * *

One of the things I tried to check out and guard against in my reporting was any scapegoating of Manale for the Rescue EMS decision, which has caused so much tension in town. Several people have confirmed that a number of options had been offered and the break with Rescue is the one that the Selectboard decided on.

It seems clear that in the lead-up to this huge change, negotiations with Rescue had been contentious. Some folks on social media have claimed that Manale bulldozed the discussion and should have handled it differently.

At the June 7 Selectboard meeting, a couple of board members cited the initial letter that Rescue Chief Drew Hazelton wrote to the board as a deciding factor.

What really happened is opaque, veiled-behind-executive-session contract discussion and non-disparagement agreements. But the bottom line is that multiple town sources have confirmed the decision belongs to the Selectboard, not Manale.

That part of the story is basically done.

The real question is what comes next for Brattleboro. I don't need to tell anyone it is a complex question. Anyone who lives in town knows.

* * *

When my wife Shanta and I were working as a reporting duo several years ago on stories about homelessness, substance abuse, and crime, she posed the question, “Who is Brattleboro for?”

That question has been on my mind ever since.

Obviously, the town is for all of us - longtime residents, newcomers, the tourists we need to pay our bills, the downtown business owners, the folks who live in the outskirts and in the hills, the people with nice houses in town, the people living in bad apartments, the people who don't have homes.

What that means is another question.

After the disruptions caused by two years of the pandemic this summer, we are back facing the same issues we were seeing in the summer of 2019, and the problems we had then have only gotten worse. There are no easy answers.

But simply managing the existing situation won't cut it - kicking the can down the road is a recipe for deterioration in a town that has fought hard to hold its own against the onslaught of forces largely beyond its control.

Brattleboro needs strong, proactive directions to address the problems that it faces, and there is a lot of federal and state money in the kitty right now. It seems fair to say that now could be a time for decisive action.

But the Selectboard and Representative Town Meeting are set up in a way that essentially is designed to be conservative and managerial, with decision rights widely distributed. Quick, decisive action is not part of the town's DNA.

That's a good thing, in one way - we have a strong form of people-based democracy.

At the same time, the system makes it hard to make things happen quickly - a lot of problem solving simply devolves into talk about the problem, without real action being taken.

Yoshi Manale was a strong, blunt, proactive manager with big ideas and a firm sense of getting things done. Historically, that is not how things are done in Brattleboro, and it may be fair to say that what went wrong in the relationship had to do more with a clash of management cultures and style than anything else.

At some point the town may need to face the paradox: How do we maintain strong channels for community input and also have strong leadership?

In our current system, neither seem to be working.

It is going to be a long, hot, complex summer in Brattleboro.

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