Town Manager Barbara Sondag in her office on Main Street in Brattleboro.
Town Manager Barbara Sondag in her office on Main Street in Brattleboro. (©Kayla Rice)
Tuesday July 16, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- When Barbara Sondag took over as Brattleboro's town manager, the town's finances were in a shambles; the federal government was breathing down her neck about spending on the town's transportation project and the general budget's bottom line was in the red.

Following the propitious hiring of John Leisenring as the town's finance director, Sondag was able to track down every penny spent of the federal money allocated for the construction of the town's parking garage and got the town's finances back in the black.

"John and I worked well together," said Sondag, during a recent interview in her office in Brattleboro's municipal building. "And he wasn't afraid to tell me ‘no.'"

As municipal finances became more complex, Sondag needed someone like Leisenring to usher the town into the 21st century. He put in place a foundation that current finance director, John O'Connor, was able to push to the next level, she said, and between the "two Johns," the house was put back into order.

Former Selectboard Chairman Dick DeGray was on the committee that decided to promote Sondag from assistant town manager to interim town manager and then to town manager.

"She came in to a very difficult and sensitive situation. The town was having financial issues and she replaced a town manager that was very well liked. Some hard feelings transpired, but she kept her head above the fray," he said. "She handled herself with class.


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But as most everyone knows, getting the town's finances back on track wasn't the last, or perhaps toughest, challenge to land on Sondag's plate during her tenure.

In April 2011, an electrical fault caused a fire in the Brooks House and if not for the quick work of the Brattleboro Fire Department and other departments around the region, the whole block could have gone up in flames, leaving Main Street a smoldering mess. Instead, the departments were able to squelch the fire, though Brooks House was extensively damaged.

Not only was she proud of the response to the fire, she was impressed by the community's response in helping those who were left homeless because of the blaze.

And then in August of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene swept across Vermont, sending flood waters down the Whetstone Brook and through the low-lying sections of Brattleboro.

"The amount of work the town employees did before, during and after the flood was amazing," said Sondag.

Following the flood, Sondag and the department heads took a crash course in FEMA rules and regulations, which enabled the town to be ready and completely prepared for the bureaucratic red tape that came with applying for federal disaster assistance.

"Our success at recovery wasn't an accident," she said.

"Her mastery of the emergency processes challenged even FEMA's," said Jerry Goldberg, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. "I saw that firsthand and I will never forget that demonstration of expertise."

Rod Francis, town planner, said the fire and the flood proved what most town employees already knew about Sondag: She was strong under pressure and brought a steady hand to town operations.

"She certainly stabilized the management team and allowed people to focus on what they needed to do," said Francis.

Prior to her taking over the job, he said, some of the town's processes were "quaint."

"Since then, the town has made huge strides. Now there is a solid commitment to modern management," said Francis.

Sondag attributed much of her success as town manager to the people working for her.

"I had a great crew. It was a group effort. I was leading a great team. We are lucky that we have department heads that grew up here. Part of their dedication is not just to the job, but to their hometown. It's an investment for them."

But DeGray said a team can't function effectively without a great leader.

"She led by example with her work ethic and she was available and approachable."

Goldberg said Sondag set a great example and not just for town employees.

"She really set the standard for me and she did it with humor, with grace and with an enormous amount of intelligence."

Gov. Peter Shumlin agreed.

"We all appreciated Barb's leadership during the aftermath of the Brooks House fire and Tropical Storm Irene, and her role in many of Brattleboro's revitalization projects, including Commonwealth Dairy and the new waste water treatment plant," he said. "Brattleboro will feel the loss and I wish Barb the best."

Martha O'Connor, who was on the Selectboard for three years during Sondag's tenure, said the most important thing Sondag brought to her job was stability.

"That was the one thing the town needed -- a steady hand at the helm."

"I look at where we were eight years ago and where we are today," said DeGray. "We are an entirely different community and Barb is a big part of that. She was in the right place at the right time for our town. We were very fortunate to have her.

Annette Cappy, who has seen her share of town managers come and go in her 25 years as town clerk, said she is truly going to miss Sondag.

"It's a great loss to the town," said Cappy.

Sondag and her partner, Kathryn Porterfield, moved to Vermont because Kathryn, a nurse practitioner, got a job in Ascutney.

When the assistant manager's position came open in Brattleboro, Sondag thought she might apply for it, as she had performed similar functions in the Champaign (Ill.) County Regional Planning Commission.

Her new job, in Olivette, Mo., is located about only 45 minutes from where she grew up. She and Porterfield, who are married in the state of Vermont, discussed what moving to a state that doesn't recognize their status would mean for them.

"It's something we talked about," said Sondag. "But the St. Louis area is very progressive and Olivette recognizes domestic partnerships."

Sondag said leaving Brattleboro and moving closer to home is bittersweet.

"I wish I did everything a little better, but I'm proud of the fact that I'm leaving Brattleboro a little better than I found it."

Despite the financial fiasco, the fire and the flood, Sondag said what she found most challenging was a spate of pedestrian/vehicle accidents in which nine people were injured, three of them fatally. All three of the fatal accidents occurred within a three-month span in the winter of 2011/2012.

"Those were the worse for me," said Sondag. "We could never figure out what was happening and how to stop it. There was nothing to explain why in that period there was a spike in these terrible accidents. It's a kind of helpless feeling."

The town took certain steps, such as line striping and giving away reflective leg bands to pedestrians, but Sondag said she'll probably never know if the town's efforts to prevent the accidents was effective or if the three deaths were just an aberration.

On Friday, July 19, from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Selectboard Meeting Room at the Municipal Building, the public is invited to say farewell to Sondag. There will be cake and punch. July 23 is her last day on the job. Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland will stand in while the town conducts a search for Sondag's replacement. July 29 is her first day on the job in Olivette.

"It's been a great ride," Sondag said about her tenure as town manager. "I am going to miss the people I worked with and the camaraderie."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.