I had the pleasure of co-moderating the Selectboard Candidates Forum on BCTV Thursday evening. I say pleasure, because I found it to be a refreshing and interesting discussion of town issues in a number of ways. I have a few observations and some advice.
The sponsoring organizations and members of the audience asked some really tough questions on a wide variety of topics, while keeping the focus primarily on what can be done locally about issues that often go beyond the town line.
It was clear that there are multiple groups working hard on things such as earning enough to participate, protecting rights of all citizens, being more inclusive as a society, and making sure people have homes. These folks have a passion and energy to do the work to bring about change. It was inspiring just to listen to everyone, and to contrast the spirit and energy of the people in the room with what is going on nationally. Vermont seems to know what is important, and isn’t distracted.
This brings me to the next observation - that the candidates, too, were receptive to the issues being presented. In many cases, candidates were quite firm in their convictions and supportive of what was being discussed. The questions were not easy, but it was clear that these candidates have principles that guide them, and all seemed open to learning more and working with community organizations that do have expertise.
Overall, it appeared that the public has very thoughtful concerns and the candidates indicated an openness to further information and action. As someone who has seen many a forum, this is not always the case. It can be an oppositional affair if either side feels respect isn’t being given. For the most part, I saw mutual respect in the room.
Coming away from the evening, I felt as if I knew both Brattleboro and the people running for office much better. I also saw new faces in the audience. It made me optimistic that some interesting, positive solutions to issues facing the community might be coming.
It won’t be easy and will take work. In that spirit, I’d like to share some advice gathered from years of writing about the Selectboard and town issues.
Current Circumstances Will Allow
Recent selectboards have done a great deal of heavy lifting to get the town finances and administration in order. Budgets have tightened, spending is more precise, operations have been upgraded or streamlined, new people have been hired, and so on. In fiscal terms, Brattleboro isn’t completely where it wants to be, but has been trying to head in the right direction. The previous decade’s focus on patching holes and solving emergencies is likely coming to an end due to some good work by many people.
This presents the next selectboard with a luxury of sorts, in that there is a much more solid foundation to now build upon. Money will still be tight, but attention can now expand a bit to starting looking at the kinds of issues brought up at the Selectboard Candidate Forum, with an eye on making some practical progress.
With the board slightly freed up to have a bit more time for non-emergencies, it is an opportunity for the public to re-engage and work with them on other, non-fiscal issues.
This comes with a warning - any new projects must have a way to pay for themselves, and ideally sustain themselves.
Learn the Basics
There are a few key documents that guide much of what happens in town. Knowing and understanding them gives you an edge. Everyone can work more efficiently by knowing when, where, and how various town decisions are made.
Brattleboro’s Charter lays out the way our local government works. It establishes key positions and boards, Representative Town Meeting, and how town business gets done. The processes for challenging decisions, or for gathering signatures for petitions, can be found here. The Charter is reviewed every decade.
The Town Plan is a document with established goals for the Town of Brattleboro. It’s a wealth of local information, generated with input from a wide variety of people and organizations. It gets revised on a five-year basis, so look for opportunities to weigh in. It also has lots of great maps.
For Town Meeting Reps, a familiarity with Roberts Rules of Order can be useful.
The Annual Town Budget is created by Town staff, adapted and approved by the Selectboard, and voted on by Town Meeting Representatives. This document shows how all property taxes and other revenue will be spent for the next year.
To look a little further out, review the Long Term Financial Plan and Capital Plan, both of which outline spending priorities for the foreseeable future. These documents get revised on a regular basis as time passes, projects are completed, and new needs arise.
The Comprehensive Review of Town Operations is a prioritized guide to how Town staff will spend time and resources to save money, improve service to the community, and carefully spend more when necessary to invest positively in the community.
Finally, know that changes can take time. The process is intentionally slow, to ensure some stability and to require agreement on multiple levels. Slow and steady is a good expectation to have.
Support Community Organizations
Brattleboro has some very creative, smart people working to make this a town and world a better place to live, and there are all sorts of organizations that would love to have you join them, support them, attend their events, and so on. Many particpated in the candidate forum.
350 Brattleboro, Post Oil Solutions, Rights & Democracy VT, VT Workers Center, VT Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, Groundworks and others would all be thrilled to see you come to a meeting, join, sign up for newsletters, or send a donation.
Groups Send Representatives To SB Meetings
The Selectboard Meeting Room is a large room for a reason. There is space for the public to attend and participate. When this happens, it can be a wonderful thing.
In recent years, public participation has dropped to a pathetic level. Very few people attend or participate in meetings, which is a shame. The meetings are designed to include discussion among board, staff and public. Without public input, a board may not fully undertand an issue. They need your help.
Social organizations would do well to send regular representatives to Selectboard meetings. This would serve multiple, valuable purposes.
First, each group would literally have representation at the table. Anytime an issue arises that impacts that group or its constituents, their representative could weigh in.
Second, this liaison to the board would become familiar with the rhythm of town government and aware of upcoming issues, which could then be reported back to members for further discussion or action.
Third, your organization will gain familiarity and build bonds with Town staff and board members. Developing a good working relationship will help future projects succeed.
Fourth, participating at the meetings enables local media to report on issues you bring up or comments you make. This can help spread your mission and principles to a wider audience, and garner further support. Speak up at meetings and get your point of view on record.
Finally, if a number of organizations do this, they will be attending together, and synergy will be at work. Organizations will be able to collaborate more effectively just by sitting together. You can support one another’s initiatives.
Town Committees are in place to allow for longer, more focused looks at narrower issues such as Planning, Development, Arts, and Skateparks.
These groups are sometimes assigned a task, and sometimes generate their own to-do lists. Sometimes committees suggest policies that get adopted by the Town.
Look for ways for your organization’s members to volunteer on committees for additional influence over town affairs.
Become Town Meeting Representatives
Representative Town Meeting is the body that ultimately approves the budget for the Town and Town Schools. The agenda is finalized by the School Board and Selectboard, and representatives vote on actions to take, as long as there is a quorum. Some issues are binding, and some are advisory-only.
RTM could merit its own story regarding strategy for social organizations. For now, know that it is an important part of how town government operates, and the more people in the room in favor of something, the more likely it is to happen.
Participate in Local Media
Brattleboro has an unusual amount of local media for a town of our size. It is often under-utilized by community organizations. You can contribute your news and views, to both inform and stay informed.
Politically speaking, it is good to remember that Brattleboro has lots of older people, and many who read the daily or weekly papers, check in with iBrattleboro, listen to the radio, and watch BCTV for their local news. You may have a great presence on TwitFace with hundreds of followers, but don’t forget everyone else.
For example, iBrattleboro has thousands of unique visitors each week all interested in Brattleboro and southern Vermont. The audience is there for you. Talk to them. Engage with them. Build support.
Consider, too, that Town staff and Selectboard members often pay attention to local media to get a sense of the citizenry. They often read the letters to the editor and comments to stories.
Make a plan to contribute news, events, and opinions to every local media platform if you want to reach the most number of people.
Brattleboro’s unique trio of citizen news (tv, radio, web) makes it easy for you to keep your issues in the headlines locally.
Onward and Upward
The current people in town and the issues we face present us with what appears to be the potential for progress. Whether that progress occurs depends on many things, but with a little additional organization and effort, the status quo can be likely be shifted. I’d suggest planning on it.
My hope is that a year from now, we will have seen a renewed interest and effort by the people of Brattleboro to become more involved in local issues. If even a fraction of the people attending the forum took a regular interest in the Selectboard, a great deal could be accomplished.
The outlook appears good.