BRATTLEBORO — Friday is Peter Elwell’s last day in a long career in municipal management.
“After growing up here in Brattleboro and then living away for almost 35 years, coming home has definitely been part of what has made these past six-plus years special,” he said when announcing his retirement in April. “But, far beyond the personal pleasure of living again in this community and region, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with so many dedicated and talented people both inside town government and in the community we serve.”
Starting to feel less resilient about a year ago, Elwell wanted to make sure he finished up as town manager before getting to the point where he was just dragging himself into work and not putting in all the energy required of the job. He pointed to COVID-19 as a particularly demanding challenge because the virus is constantly around and changing all the time.
He said he waited until annual Representative Town Meeting in March had passed before announcing to the Select Board and community his intention to leave at the end of the year. He wanted to ensure a smooth transition, which he said he believes has been achieved in the last nine months since a search for his successor began and ended with hiring Yoshi Manale.
Elwell said he wishes a project in which the town is partnering with Windham & Windsor Housing Trust to bring housing units to the Municipal Center was further along in the process, but he’s hopeful it will happen next year. And he feels internal projects aimed at improving processes within the town are heading in the right direction.
With no immediate plans for retirement except to slow his pace, Elwell said he wants to travel with family if the pandemic allows for it. He also wants to contribute to other projects happening in the community, but he doesn’t intend to get involved in municipal affairs except to offer history or background information as a resource if consulted.
“I think it’s important I create space there,” he said.
Elwell said he will be “an interested citizen,” and some day he might consider participating in Representative Town Meeting.
His plan is to continue assisting community members in planning a Juneteenth celebration for installing a plaque next to the Civil War Monument on the Common to correct the record on the number of soldiers who fought in the war. Overlooked on the monument were numbers accounting for people of color and individuals of lesser means who were paid to serve in place of those with more money.
Finishing his 36-year career in Brattleboro where he was born and raised, Elwell found the job of town manager rewarding. He said he feels very fortunate to really enjoy the work he set out do since coming out of graduate school.
Growing up, Elwell would talk with his sisters about issues and events in town. He said he was inspired by his father who worked as town manager from 1960 to 1989, and his mother who taught professionally and was involved in many civil and cultural projects.
When Elwell first started college, he planned a career in journalism. He had worked at WKVT and was drawn to the news operation at the Brattleboro radio station. He later realized he wanted to work in local government.
He graduated from Brattleboro Union High School in 1980, attended Middlebury College and received a master’s degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked for Palm Beach for 26 years and briefly served as township manager in Roxbury, N.J.
Hired to start in January 2015, Elwell returned to Brattleboro from Florida, where he was town manager in Palm Beach for 14 years and assistant town manager for 12 years.
Elwell said Brattleboro was in good financial shape when he started but best practices have been developed for capital planning, budgeting and managing town finances to help weather challenges.
“In the internal operations of town government, it’s been important to me to develop some improved processes with the town staff for how we do our work,” he said.
Social equity work to get input from previously “unseen or unheard” segments of the population is another area in which he’s happy to report progress.
“There is still work to be done in that regard,” he said, adding that he’s excited to see how community engagement efforts to update the town website to be more accessible pan out.
Elwell expressed disappointment over not finding a finance director since John O’Connor retired at the end of October 2019 and O’Connor’s successor didn’t successfully complete a probationary period. But Elwell described being pleased to find “the right people” to head town departments during his tenure.
Elwell vividly remembers how in Roxbury, he worked with six employee unions with no human resources director or assistant manager and without any prior experience with unions. He called the experience “very demanding in a number of different ways.”
In Florida, he encountered challenges with police and fire unions as significant staffing cuts were made. In Brattleboro, he feels he had “really good collaboration” with the four employee unions.
In Palm Beach, Elwell had conversations with former President Donald Trump about what he could and couldn’t do with his property at the Mar-a-Lago Club resort. A headline in the Palm Beach Daily News from 2007 in which Elwell declined to comment reads, “Trump, town of Palm Beach put flag suit to rest.”
While the number of year-round residents in Palm Beach is similar to Brattleboro’s, Elwell found the financial characteristics and community values strongly contrast.
Of Palm Beach, Elwell said he has “lots of happy memories” and “lots of memories of challenging times as well.” He compared having the interaction with Trump at Mar-a-Lago to one he might have in Brattleboro with someone about their property rights.
Roxbury also was challenging because the board he worked for was split with four Republicans and three Democrats, and what he called “lots of crossfire.”
“Coming home to Brattleboro was such a privilege, such an expected, powerfully positive for my family and me,” he said. “And that’s why we intend to stay.”
Elwell’s wife, Wendy Harrison, will continue in interim management roles with local governments. His daughter is teaching in Keene, N.H., and his son lives in Brattleboro.
Elwell and Harrison met at graduate school. He credited her for making a “huge sacrifice” in taking on a variety of part-time jobs mostly in the municipal sector to spend a lot of time with their children when they were growing up in Palm Beach.
When they moved to Vermont, Harrison served as municipal manager of Bellows Falls and Rockingham from 2018 to 2020. Then she served as interim town administrator in Vernon from winter 2020 until September.
Since mid-October, Harrison has worked for Winooski and anticipates being freed up again in the spring. She’s able to stay active in municipal governance and share her vast experience with communities across the state, Elwell said.
“It’s really cool,” Elwell said, adding that Harrison is well suited to help municipalities figure out what’s working and what’s not when developing groundwork for finding a new manager.
Speaking of new managers, Elwell said it’s been “exciting” working alongside Manale in the last month or so before the new town manager takes on the post.
“He definitely brings skills I don’t have and a midcareer perspective to this work,” Elwell said. “This is somebody who has a lot of his career ahead of him, and brings creativity and energy to the work.”
Manale has experience bringing housing to communities that need it, Elwell said.
“That’s a really high priority for Brattleboro right now,” Elwell said, noting how Manale is coming into the position at a time when federal pandemic relief funds will be funneled from states into towns and cities.
Elwell sees the commitment from many individuals to help improve the community as Brattleboro’s biggest strength. Figuring out how to collaborate is much better in his eyes than trying to find enough volunteers.
Challenges he noted have to do with community safety, housing and traffic safety.
“One thing that really cuts through across a number of different issues,” he said, “is the degree to which poverty is more present and that’s not unique to Brattleboro.”
That challenge aggravates others, Elwell said.
His hope is that the community will “continue to have the courage to address daunting issues and keep being patient with each other, patient enough to allow disagreement without becoming divisive.”
“If we can do that, we can keep making progress on the relatively straightforward stuff and the more complicated stuff,” he said. “If we don’t keep doing that, everything will be harder to accomplish.”