News Analysis: Should Brattleboro elect a mayor?

Saturday June 22, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Town Manager Barbara Sondag's surprise announcement this week that she would be leaving Brattleboro to take up a similar position in Olivette, Mo., caught the Selectboard -- and the rest of the town -- by surprise, and now the board is making plans for the transition.

Sondag is leaving July 23 and the board will almost certainly have to name an interim manager while a nationwide search is held to find a replacement for Sondag, who has worked for the town since 2003.

The board is going to schedule a meeting for next week to meet with representatives from Vermont League of Cities and Towns to talk about its plan, and some think it is a good time to consider once again if Brattleboro would be well-served in adopting a new form of town government, which would include a mayor and city council.

The Brattleboro Charter Revision Commission spent about three years looking over the complete charter between 2007 and 2010, and during that time the commission decided not to propose a change.

Still, with Sondag making plans to leave Brattleboro in a little over one month, there is some support for at least bringing the topic up for conservation once again.

"I think this town could support a strong mayor," said former Selectboard Chairman Dick DeGray. "There are a lot of people in this community who feel like they want to control who is representing them. It is different to have five people hiring a manager and having the voters decide who is representing them."

DeGray always said he thought Sondag would be great mayor, and even though she is putting her house on the market and heading west, DeGray still says the town should consider making the change.

DeGray said having a mayor would ensure that more Brattleboro citizens would get a chance to have a say in how the town is governed.

"It seems to me that over the past few years it has been hard to get people to run for Town Meeting, and going to a mayoral system of government would eliminate Representative Town Meeting," DeGray said. "I think there is much less interest in Representative Town Meeting these days and that could be a plus side of going to a mayoral system."

DeGray knows it would take a lot of work to make the change, and it would take time, but he said the town should at least try to gauge support for changing to a mayoral system to see if the residents were interested in changing their form of government.

"A town manager is accountable to the Selectboard, and there is a profound difference between that and being accountable to the voters," said DeGray. "If you have a strong mayor you might be able to shake things up a little."

A change to a mayoral form of government would require a change to the town charter.

The Selectboard could make such a change, following an Australian ballot vote, or Town Meeting Representatives could force a change following two Town Meeting votes separated by at least 60 days.

The Vermont Legislature also has to approve any changes to the charter.

It's a process

If Brattleboro was going to consider making the change toward a mayoral form of government, it would take a few years to study the proposal and then bring the question to the voters.

Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein said the board is going to move ahead and begin the search for a new town manager as soon as Sondag prepares to leave in the middle of next month.

"Our focus right now is locating the right town manager for this position," Gartenstein said. "Changing to the mayor form of government would require substantial addition study and it is not something the Selectboard is currently discussing or considering."

Penelope Wurr, who owns a craft and gift shop on Main Street, said small business owners would be better served by a mayor.

Wurr, who says business is off among the downtown merchants, thinks someone who has to run for office would be forced to make him or herself available and such a person could be a strong advocate for downtown business owners who she said can sometimes feel disconnected from what goes on in town hall.

"I think a mayor would give the downtown more attention," she said. "We need someone who is dynamic. A mayor would have to go out and work for votes and someone like that could make more things happen for the downtown."

Vermont League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Steve Jeffrey said there are no clear guidelines on when a municipality should consider making the change, or on which municipalities would most benefit from a mayoral system of government.

It has nothing to do with size, population or budget, Jeffrey said, but rather depends more on how the community and existing government officials are functioning and where they want to go in the future.

"It always has to be a local decision," Jeffrey said. "There are pros and cons to any form of government and one size does not fit all. Each community has to figure out what is best."

There are two municipalities in Vermont with full-time, or so-called "strong" mayors; Rutland and Burlington, and another six with city councils and city managers, or "weak" mayors.

Those include St. Albans, Winooski, Newport, Montpelier, Barre and Vergennes.

In those municipalities the city councils hire a city manager, similar to how a selectboard hires a town manager, and the mayor is elected by the voters, though the mayor has less power to make decisions without the city council or city manager.

And, Jeffrey points out, each is a little different in how the mayor works with committees, departments and councils.

When a municipality does want to start thinking about a change, VLCT will provide information, though he warns that mayoral associations can make just as strong a case as organizations that lobby for selectboard and town manager systems of government.

Though he said it was important for a community to take a long view, considering what was best for the future and not necessarily to react to a resignation or crisis that might spur discussions on making a change in government.

"It depends on what you are looking for," Jeffrey said. "Are you looking for accountability, professionalism, or a public face. It all depends on what is important to the community."

Jeffrey also said how important it was to have the right person in the top seat, whether that person was called a city manager, a town manager or a mayor.

"You can have a really good person filling a bad job and doing a great job overcoming the constraints of the position," Jeffrey said. "There are so many things that go into making government work. It usually comes down to how people work together, or don't work together. In the end there are probably few grasses that are any greener than yours.

Making sure the right person is in the right job is one of the reasons former Town Manager Corwin "Corky" Elwell says Brattleboro should stick with the form of government it has.

Elwell was a member of the Charter Revision Commission which met for about three-and-a-half years to go through the entire charter.

The commission considered the town's form of government but opted to keep things as they are after meeting with leaders from other communities that have mayors.

Elwell is a strong supporter of the democratic process but he points out that democracy does not always yield the best results.

When a town manager is interviewed the Selectboard can check references and make sure the candidate has a strong background in personnel, finance and management.

To run for an office like mayor, Elwell says, you might only need to be a registered voter and a resident of the town.

"That's the problem. You don't know what you'll get," said Elwell. "Anyone can be elected, for any number of reasons, without qualifications. You might get someone who is super, or you might get someone who would be stuck with for two or four years. We thought the present selectboard-management configuration was probably what Brattleboro would accept and need for the future."

Ben "Spoon" Agave was chairman of the Charter Revision Commission and he said the commission spent time talking with the mayors of other Vermont municipalities and considering how the change would affect Brattleboro.

In the end, Agave said, it seemed like a mayoral form of government would not really make a significant enough difference to warrant the disruption and work it would take to create the new system.

"As a commission we were not attached to one form of government or the other and we did look at the idea of having a mayor," he said. "I think you've got to have a strong reason to make a change like that. There are some pluses and some minuses but we couldn't really point to anything that said we would be substantially better off with a mayor."

Across the border

Voters in Greenfield, Mass., approved a revised town charter in June 2002 that established the mayor and town council form of government, replacing a five member Selectboard that was responsible for hiring a town manager.

Under the revised charter voters elect 13 members to the Town Council, made up of nine precinct councilors and four councilors at large.

The Western Massachusetts town of about 18,000 residents voted for its first mayor in June 2003.

The change also provided for a City Council to replace the five-member Selectboard which formerly hired the town manager.

David Singer, a Greenfield resident who was on the Charter Commission and who supported the change from the start, said Greenfield and Brattleboro both grapple with bigger city problems like crime, shrinking resources and trying to compete for business development with other larger and more organized municipalities.

Singer says Greenfield's current mayor, William Martin, has been able to move forward economic policy and better represent Greenfield as it vies for development with other communities across the region.

"I think we were a city, but no one wanted to acknowledge that," said Singer. "Here was a community with a Selectboard that only met twice a month. We had big city problems but we were moving forward like a small town. We needed someone who could be accountable to the voters and who could be accountable day in and day out."

And Tim Farrell, a former selectboard member and city councilor from Greenfield, Mass., has been on both sides of making a switch to a mayoral form of government.

Farrell was on the Selectboard before the switch, and then served on the city council after the first mayor of Greenfield was elected in 2003.

Farrell admits that the change was somewhat tortuous, with slim voter margins deciding some important decisions and outgoing public officials making some 11th hour appointments that might not have best served the town.

In Greenfield a group, which Farrell said wanted to move to the mayoral form of government, gathered enough signatures to form a charter change commission.

That commission then did the work needed to make the change and put the question to voters.

The change was approved by 322 votes, or just a little more than 7 percent of the 4,576 votes that were cast.

As a member of the Selectboard at the time, Farrell said he was not in support of having a mayor in Greenfield, but he says the town is being well served by having a single, strong leader, and now he thinks it was a good move.

"Right now it's going well. We've had two good mayors," he said. "I think a lot of good has come from the change."

Farrell says that with the right person in charge decisions are made quicker and town staff, and the public understand how and where policies are created.

Still, the change, he says, did not eliminate all of Greenfield's problems, and he said many of the same people are complaining about many of the same issues.

"People thought that if we just put the word ‘city' before our name you would have all of the wonderful benefits of being a city, and if you had one strong person making decision the issues would go away, but it doesn't happen that way," Farrell said. "The same people are yelling, but now they have one person they can yell at every day of the week instead of yelling at the council or selectboard at meetings."

Howard Weiss-Tisman is the senior reporter at the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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