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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

The 2014 RTM Message


Representative Town Meeting members repeatedly tried to “send a message” to the Brattleboro Selectboard at their most recent meeting. Throughout, representatives also stated that they didn’t think the Selectboard was getting that message.

As an outside observer, the message was simple: Taxes are too high. If you are going to cut something, cut additional Police Fire bonds and not the Library or Recreation and Parks departments. The bonds can wait.

If I were on the Selectboard, that’s the message I would have heard loud and clear.

When the meeting ended, though, it appears that the Selectboard went away with a message that they should proceed with the new bonds, and that the Library and Rec & Parks will be on the chopping block next year when funds are again limited.

I’m not convinced that we won’t go through the 1% local option tax debate again, despite numerous repeated votes against it. It will come back as “the only way” to save beloved programs as the bond payments add up.

But taxes aren’t “the only way” to pay for things, as numerous reps tried to point out. Investment in local heat and electricity production could bring in revenue and create jobs, which could lower costs and taxes for residents. That would inspire others to want to move here more than higher taxes, for sure.

Which message was heard? One that preserves the Library and Parks and looks for income-producing opportunities, or one that favors new emergency facilities at their expense?

I expect to hear about cuts to town programs before we hear that a facility upgrade is put on hold, but would love to be wrong.

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I think it's become pretty

I think it's become pretty clear that this Selectboard hears what it wants to hear. does what it wants to do and pays little attention to what the people who elected them want.Of course, the obvious and moral thing to do would be to reduce the police/fire bonds. This board (and, to be honest, I think the previous board) doesn't seem capable of compromise or taking another look at situations that will prove detrimental to this town. Instead they will reduce two of the most important departments in town - the library and parks and rec.
Two departments that can least afford budget cuts. I hope we all remember this when it's time to elect a new Selectboard. Unfortunately that won't happen soon enough.

 
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Confusing

It's fascinating "watching" all this from afar (I get to be more clinical about it and not even remotely personal...which rocks).

I was reading through the budget conversation and thought, "Budget too big. Strong message. Pause on the bonds. Strong message. Too much spending. Strong message" all leading to the only possible conclusion: the budget being voted down.

Which is wasn't.

And (thus why I clarified with Chris in the other thread), apparently, it wasn't even a close vote.

How do you sit on the Selectboard and not hear a completely garbled message? I think it's crystal clear that the Reps (and by extension, their constituents) didn't want the 1%. But the actual *action* of approving the budget, reflecting the majority of reps voting, can easily be seen as an endorsement of what is to come.

I don't think it's just a matter of hearing what you want to hear. It's also about hearing two completely different messages: the outcry vs. the actual action taken by actual town meeting reps, a majority of whom actually voted to approve the budget.

But, I'm in Ohio. So, there's that. :)

 
 #

The message from the

The message from the Selectboard has always been -and continues to be - no one messes with this project. From the very first time the 14 million dollar cost was uttered out loud there have been many, many constituents- singularly and in groups - telling the Selectboard that this is too expensive a project for Brattleboro at this time. Whenever dialog has been started about perhaps just looking to see what other options there were or whether the project could be done in increments at a more affordable cost - the answer has always been the same : This is the most economical way to do it; the town owes a 5 million dollar bond on the project; it's too late to make any changes. Is it any wonder that people are confused over what - if any options -there are? The fact that the public has decried this project consistently and loudly for months should be reason enough for the Selectboard to take a step back and look at the situation with a new view. It's not too late to stop this - no ground has been broken;no construction has begun. The Selectboard and former Town manager pushed this project through with too little information being presented to the public to make a qualified decision. The information that was given was confusing at best. The Holy Grail of all of this was the passing of the 1% tax; that was going to pay for this project. Well,the 1% tax was defeated so how does the project get paid for now? The Selectboard has dug in their heels and refuses to even consider another option for the police/fire project. This is what they want and by God,nobody is going to take that away from them. There are not 2 different messages being sent to the board. There's one message- we don't want this huge expense- and they refuse to hear that.

 
 #

But...

Apologies if I'm being unnecessarily contrary here, but...

Why approve the budget then? It seemed so clear from Chris (amazing) transcriptions that the budget was a referendum on the police/fire project. Approving it is an endorsement of that, no?

 
 #

You're not being contrary at

You're not being contrary at all. You're right - the budget should not have been approved and since Town Meeting Reps are only a tiny portion of the actual voters in town perhaps that's not the best way to decide on projects that will have such a profound effect on everyone who lives here. And I understand that this is the way things are done for better or worse. But, I still believe that the governing body of a city or town (in our case the Selectboard)should act in the best interests of all the people they represent and should be willing to concede that perhaps something of the magnitude of the police/fire project deserves to be looked at again. They know there are huge problems with this project. They know it's not affordable. Is it not their responsibility to actively seek out other alternatives -even if, in the end-they prove to be not feasible? My problem with the Selectboard is that they have a pretty solid reputation (well earned, I believe) of not really paying attention to what people are saying. There is a history of them being unwilling to listen to public discourse and that was true before you were a member, Ken; during the time you were a member (although I'm not necessarily including you in that accusation) and it is still true with this current board. Any time citizens attempt to have a discussion at the public meetings about problems in the town (and not just the police/fire facility. It can be traffic problems, potholes, drugs, whatever) they (the board) only seem to offer lip service. There is consistently a whole lot of excuses why things can't be changed; made better; reconsidered. To say that the Selectboard can only make decisions based on what people vote on is ridiculous. They make decisions at every meeting on a variety of issues that have not had a public vote. I can't believe that they actually think this obscenely expensive endeavor is a good thing for this town. Carrying that enormous debt will destroy this town. taxes will continue to rise; people will lose their homes, making a living wage will become even more difficult than it is now. Tourism will not increase when our roads are unsafe and in shambles and our downtown continues to be plagued with crumbling sidewalks and businesses that come and go. If tomorrow the Selectboard made a decision to slow down the process of building the new fire/police stations; to take some time to look at some other less expensive options- do you think there would be a roar of protest from voters in the town? I can pretty much guarantee you that the loud noise you would hear -way out in Ohio - would be a huge sigh of relief.

 
 #

Fear

I think the reason the full budget isn't voted down is fear.

When Reps talk of cutting the budget, they often have something specific in mind. It's discussed at length, they get close to agreement, then someone warns them that while they can adjust the number up or down, they can't specify what the Selectboard must do.

It's fact, but comes across as a veiled threat. "You may want X, but we may cut Y or Z. You can't control us!" That makes it a much riskier vote for a Rep.

In these situations, passing the budget isn't so much endorsement as resignation.

I think if the budget were voted down, repeatedly, until the Reps got what they were after, the Selectboards of the future would be more inclined to work with them when things like this come up. (Gartenstein was open and honest about what would happen if they voted it down - they'd go back and work on a new one.)

Another option would be to amend the Charter to allow Reps line item control over the budget.

 
 #

I'm not saying you are wrong

I'm not saying you are wrong about your conclusion regarding fear vs. endorsement, but it also strikes me that it would be difficult for the Selectboard to sit and ponder, "Ok, they passed it. But maybe that was more of them being resigned to the direction than as an endorsement?"

Which, again, is just to say that I'm not sure the message is as clear as some think it might be.

(Full disclosure: I'm teaching a course called "Ethical Leadership" this semester so I'm fascinated by this as a case-study, not in any way minimizing that these are dollars out of your own pocket that are at stake.)

 
 #

maybe if there had not been

maybe if there had not been any concern previously expressed over the large cost of the project I would agree that the Selectboard would not nor should - try to decipher what the real feelings of the Town meeting reps were. But that's not the case. People have been voicing concern and alarm and anger for months over the cost of the police/fire project. No member of the Selectboard would have to sit and wonder what people really meant. I think Chris is right in thinking that there is a certain amount of fear about "rocking the boat" so to speak. The SB has made it painfully clear that they think this decision is not only okay but is the only way to go. If the proposed expenditure of the police/fire project had been on a ballot for all voters to decide on I think we would be looking at a very different situation. There has been a certain amount of 'bullying' (for lack of a better word) that has gone on in both the initial presentation of the project and in response to the questions put to the SB about whether or not this was a wise decision.As I said previously the discussion of other options has not been very welcome in the SB meetings.
I don't think anyone is asking the Selectboard to try to read the minds of their constituents. But it would be good if they at least made a pretense of having an open mind.

 
 #

Ultimate Irony

I got the message loud and clear. The Police and Fire extravaganza is sacred and must be preserved at all costs. Who needs parks anyhow. And the Library is just a place for the homeless to hang out!

Don't like Potholes? I bet there's a video game out there to help you hone your skills in evading them.

Any suggestions that the Police & Fire improvements could be modified was squelched by revelations that the Police-Fire Facility Building Committee was doing a bang-up job of paring costs, and if you have any ideas, attend the meetings. I bet they've even managed to save a couple thousand smackeroos already!

No, the whole thing needs to be re-examined. We need to salvage what we can, do what absolutely must be done to protect the safety of our responders, and place the rest in safe-stor until we can afford to do the job right.

It will be the ultimate irony if we have to lay off cops and firemen to pay the $20 mil that it will ultimately cost us.

(Or perhaps we should privatize the whole shebang).

 
 #

Votes are the loudest message

I watched the coverage as well, and I think the message was very clear - everyone seems to agree that taxes are high, and some people think that taxes are TOO high but they are in the minority.

As Ken points out above, the votes weren't really close. Not even counting the 1% local option sales tax question, the representatives had four opportunities to lower taxes (using the Ag fund, taking from the unassigned fund balance, accepting the town budget, and accepting the school budget). In two cases they declined to lower taxes (amending the Ag fund article and voting down article 18) and in two cases they accepted the proposed budgets (and the necessary taxes to fund them).

Cable news channels unfortunately carry loud and often repeated messages, but that doesn't mean that they reflect the views of the majority of Americans. Likewise, while many of the people at RTM (and here on iBrattleboro) have made passionate arguments, ultimately the vote is the final word. The selectboard and school boards can only hear the message, mixed as the delivery may be, that Brattleboro's Representative Town Meeting ultimately sends: the budgets they submitted are acceptable to the majority.

 
 #

Tough calls/nobody's happy

As a town meeting rep myself, a homeowner, taxpayer and longtime resident of Brattleboro I was troubled throughout town meeting day. Opponents of the police/fire project were successful in getting the 1% tax option vote moved earlier than the budget vote. This was fine, of course, and I believe the thought was that by defeating the 1% added sales tax it would further undermine the ability to move forward with the police/fire station.

The arguments against the 1% were apparently persuasive and it went down decisively. We certainly need a stream of money flowing effortlessly from other people's pockets into the town, but this tax has not been effectively sold as such. Dover has a 1% local option tax and it works because the entire town caters to out of town guests and the town is far from beautiful NH. The 1% local option would come as much from "us" as from "them" and would apply at all retail businesses in town - not just stores that cater to tourists in the downtown area. The tax would have made Brattleboro the "one and only" CT river town in Vermont raising it's sales tax.

As to police and fire. The arguments were not strong enough to delay or seriously downsize this project. Delay? We've already delayed! Downsize it and we lose all manner of economies of scale. I did go home wondering the following: It was asked if the "health and safety" problems that our fire and police deal with everyday in current facilities could be fixed for five million? The answer was no. I wish I had asked what the lowest number would be for fixing these "health and safety" concerns. Ten million? Twelve million? The select board still has the authority to borrow less than the full 14.1 million. Five million has been signed for. Can we do it for a total of 10 million?

As I said at RTM, I am willing to pay the extra five dollars a week for the next many years to pay for this project. Something at home will have to go, but the responsibility for police and fire is a fundamental town responsibility. Not an easy situation and none of the other town reps I spoke to thought the choices were anything but difficult.

Andy Davis (PS: Don't forget to pay your Vermont Use Tax if you shop in NH)

 
 #

Votes ain't what they used to be

While a vote may be a definitive marker, it may not represent the will of the people. Consider voter disenfranchisment, or the effects of massive spending, to list just a few ways votes are manipulated in other situations. Or a vote may be construed as a stamp of approval, such as the Crimea resolution. Or Dear Leader gaining 99.99% (showing All voices had a say). That may serve as validation to some, but at great cost to others, with much ill-will wrought, and perhaps devastating consequences unleashed.

I try to look beyond the tally, and consider the mechanisms as well. In my view RTM is less clear than a ballot measure, especially when the sum is so high. Expenditudes of this magnitude, and significant cross-roads should be put to the public at large. And a better way to accomplish higher voting totals should be sought.

 
 #

A good question

I think you mean "Expenditudes of the magniture"

But you raise a good question: is representative Town Meeting really representative? It would be great to have an unbiased evaluation.

 
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The Chimes, they are a-Tanging

Yes, some kind of assessment of the representative part of RTM would be most useful. I don't know enough about local history to say if the framework ever worked, but lately it seems that societal pressures have focused representation into a subset of the general population that may be inclined towards a respect for process over result.

This is my hunch, unsubstantiated as it may be.

If a jury duty type system were in place, randomly selecting citizens who had to serve, would the results be the same? I doubt it.

 
 #

Is Representative Town Meeting representative?

First of all, this a question throughout Vermont. When town meetings are held all day on a Tuesday how broad a cross section of citizens can attend? I have been part of RTM in Brattleboro for the last five years. I do think it attracts folks who care about the town and are interested in the issues. It is certainly easy to get involved. Usually when voting for reps I am directed to vote for more names than are are printed on the ballot. This could make an insurrection by folks of a different persuasion rather easy. Where are they? The only commitment is a single full day meeting on a Saturday in March. A couple of evening information meetings are highly recommended.

Some have complained that the results of the non-binding resolution about the 1% local option tax that was put on the Town Meeting Day ballot by the select board was not honored by the town meeting reps. Non-binding is just that - non-binding. The town meeting reps - for better or worse - are directed by the town charter to make these decisions. There are provisions for citizens to get this on a binding vote by submitting a signed petition. The mechanisms exist for all of this.

I would glad to see more new faces at RTM. The more viewpoints that are brought to the table, the better for the process and the better for the town. The door is wide open.

Andy Davis

 
 #

Letter of Intent

There's a huge difference between could (serve) and would.

 
 #

Is the Informational Meeting a Crutch?

"The only commitment is a single full day meeting on a Saturday in March. A couple of evening information meetings are highly recommended."

Representatives are not just supposed to go to one meeting a year. If you look at the the way it was established, Reps are supposed to pay attention to all the issues throughout the year, and meet with their constituents. (Ideally, when they ran for office, they'd put forth their platform as well.) The convocation this year made mention of it, which I found interesting.

I have a hunch that the Informational Meeting has become a substitute for the originally intended paying attention year-round. Some certainly pay close attention to town issues all year long, but it gives many Reps a way to "cram for the test," so to speak. It aids convenience, but it allows reps to be more reliant on what they are told, rather than what they've worked on themselves all year.

(Some other RTM towns have committee of reps to set the meeting agenda each year. The Selecboard works with them…)

Imagine the governing difference in Brattleboro if Town Reps attended and participated in most Selectboard and School meetings, and set the Town Meeting agenda.

With a proper petition, the voters of town could vote to repeal RTM. The question would be, what do we replace it with? Open town meeting? A city? A regional government?

 
 #

Purpose of RTM

My understanding is that RTM was established because of a drop-off in attendance at the open town meeting that preceded it. In my experience, being a (minimally*) elected TM Rep. induces in me a responsibility to pay attention to what is going on it town. I have attended many selectboard meetings, and quite a few school board meetings, in addition to countless energy committee and PFF committee meetings.

In my mind a better system would not be one where more people participated, but one in which a higher sense of civic responsibility, commitment, pride and creativity were elicited.

___
* By minimally I mean this -- I only run for RTM when I know that I will not be taking the place of another who has also stepped up to serve as a Rep. It really is a painfully simple process to get on RTM.

 
 #

What is a town rep's commitment?

My point about attending the informational meetings and the daylong town meeting was to say that there are few obstacles to anyone in town getting involved with this process. I was NOT suggesting that a town rep just show up at a couple of evening sessions and then attend the Saturday meeting.

Town meeting is full of people who do follow town issues all year. I saw many town meeting reps at the informational meetings on the police/fire project. I talk to people regularly about town issues and try to get a sense of people's views.

Your suggestion that town reps run on a platform and participate in most select board meetings is interesting. I will certainly entertain that as a reasonable idea. Certainly town meetings throughout Vermont are attended by folks who start getting informed as they walk in the door. I don't recommend it - but is certainly quite common in our state's brand of 'pure democracy'.

Maybe the internet could be used - some kind of online questionnaire so that when people vote at town meeting for their reps they have some idea other than 'name and address'. Another issue is voting accountability. We keep no records of which reps voted which way! I suppose inspecting BCTV tapes could reveal the few who get recorded voting on camera. Again, the use of digital technology could result in an accurate record who how each vote was made. Then specific 'bums' could be 'tossed out" (just kidding… I would be among the first to go, I'm sure).

Andy Davis

 
 #

The door

You raise several good points. But I would add that, although there are problems of representation with non-elected Town Meeting voters, that is a matter of individual choice in the immediate circumstance. By which I mean that every voter is welcome to participate in traditional Town Meeting; a decision not to participate at any particular meeting is based on personal circumstances. Representative Town Meeting, on the other hand, intentionally limits participation and requires prior qualification and planning.

Unintentionally, at least I hope it's unintentional, it also creates a certain stratification in the public process - Regular voters in Brattleboro have less say than in how they're taxed, how their services are provided, and what their tax dollars buy than other Vermonters. There is an "elite," if you'll forgive the term in this case, that has that privilege. Granted, election to that elite is only limited by number (and the usual qualifications) by the government, but I think it also creates other barriers, real and perceived, as well.

 
 #

Is Unique Good?

soapbox

My most visceral problem with Representative Town Meeting (RTM) is simply this: it is not the Vermont way. I think it's a fine system in theory, with good points and bad points just like every other system. However, every other town in Vermont has a normal Town Meeting. I have been a Vermont resident my whole life; I moved to Brattleboro knowing that it wasn't a city and looking forward to joining my fellow citizens at Town Meeting. Ooops.

While I love my house, had I known about RTM, I simply wouldn't have moved here. Yes, of course I could run and try to get elected to be a representative, or I could just show up at the info meeting and get appointed to be a representative (and how is that fair to people who did run?) - but why should I have to? If the town government doesn't welcome voters with open arms (and while it may be easy to become a rep, it certainly isn't a process that welcomes new residents), why should people who aren't already invested bother to get involved with it?

/soapbox

I don't mind being different when it's better. Normal Town Meeting also has a host of problems and can't capture the will of all of a town's voters - but at least towns with normal Town Meetings know that and routinely schedule (binding) Australian ballots for major issues. I'm glad people on this thread are talking about some of the issues with "Representative" Town Meeting.

 
 #

The Agora

Ah yes, hearkening back to ancient Greece again are we, Spinoza, with democracy by ballot. Socrates would be happy with that idea, I'm sure.

Note that all three districts had unfilled seats after the March 4th election. *Anyone,* any resident of Brattleboro, could have been in RTM by simply collecting 20 signatures. Even Chris Grotke!

I really don't know what the answer is re the PFF. The cries of "health and safety" rang a bit hollow for me. When I toured the facilities I asked "How many people have been injured" by stairs down to prison cells, carbon monoxide in the fire station, mold in the basement, etc. I don't think there have been many.

It is also true that people in town have been trying to make something happen with regard to these stations for a long time, and it keeps getting put off, and off, and off.

My concern now is that the town's ability to bond other big projects, such as new renewable energy infrastructure, may be severely compromised by our inordinate debt.

 

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