BRATTLEBORO — It’s been more than two years since the Select Board received its community safety report.
And while a number of recommendations in that report have been implemented by the town, there is still quite a list to get through.
On Tuesday night, the board discussed how best to spend the $300,000 to $350,000 if Town Meeting representatives approve another allocation on Saturday — to further implement the recommendations in the report
“One of the reasons that we have been delayed in this process has simply been capacity and bandwidth in the town manager’s office for a lot of different reasons,” said Select Board Chairman Ian Goodnow.
After Peter Elwell, former town manager, presented the report to the board in 2021, he retired. His position was filled by Yoshi Manale, who quit the job five months later amidst controversy in the town after Brattleboro severed its 62-year partnership with EMS provider Rescue Inc.
Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland kept the helm steady as interim manager until John Potter took over on the first of this year.
“We’re finally getting back to a place where we’re able to start this important work again,” said Goodnow.
The report was commissioned by the Select Board as a “focused examination of how town resources are currently ulized and can be best ulized to ensure equitable and optimal community health, wellness, and safety.”
Some of the recommendations included reckoning with the harm caused, increasing accountability in town government, disbanding the Citizen Police Communications Committee, eliminating police response to the vast majority of mental health crises that do not involve deadly weapons or imminent risk of harm, investing in neighborhood restorative justice programs, and prioritizing spending on safe housing for all, food shelves, free meals, community gardens, and spaces for belonging for the entire community.
“I think that it’s clear from lack of action on it, that we haven’t really had capacity to move forward,” said Board member Daniel Quipp. “There isn’t really a home for this work in the town government.”
He also acknowledged the board hasn’t “really had many public conversations about this,” and believes $350,000 is insufficient “to operationalize stuff from this report.”
He proposed using some amount of the safety fund to establish a department “to take it off our town manager’s plate [whose] plate is already extremely full.”
Quipp also noted that the new town manager “does not necessarily have the subject matter expertise in this area, and so I would like us to engage subject matter experts so that we can make progress on this.”
“When we’re talking about this $350,000 for community safety fund, there’s no infrastructure around that money ... other than our goal of finding alternatives to policing, meeting people’s basic needs, building up alternatives to policing and other police-like safety responses,” said Board member Jess Gelter, who said she supports the idea of creating a staff position.
Gelter said she believes hiring someone with expertise would actually help the town find appropriate uses for the money.
“It would be somebody who’s got the expertise and the leadership and the ability to pull different partners together to make successful proposals happen,” she said.
But Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin said the board hasn’t fulfilled its promise to listen to the community about how to use the money.
“We’ve promised an airing before we spend the money on a dedicated staff employee,” said McLoughlin, who didn’t want to use up the money on staff or “a defund the police argument, which I’m not at all happy about.”
Board member Tim Wessel said he felt Quipp and Gelter were “moving forward a little quickly.”
He also said that because creating a new department hadn’t been warned on the agenda, he felt “a little dizzy.”
While Wessel thanked the committee for all its work on the safety report and developing recommendations, he said it was “a flawed process.”
“We have to have the conversation about what in these recommendations we’re going to move forward with and what are just dead on arrival,” he said. “It’s not like ‘Here are your instructions going forward ... It was kind of, you know, a mess. And it’s our job to get that mess together.”
Quipp said he wasn’t making a motion to create a new department, but that he wanted the board to think about it in advance of welcoming new members.
“I don’t believe that it’s right for us to ask the town manager’s office to do this right now because we know, intimately, how busy they are with other things,” he said.
McLoughlin suggested the town manager should hire people in the community to help judge “what ideas are legal and complement existing services, and whether they’ve been effective elsewhere ... and to organize the process by which they are presented in a public meeting ... and then go and flesh them out and recommend to us which ones are valuable.”
“Maybe like hiring a consultant to take a look at the report’s recommendations, and to solicit proposals from community organizations to bring about the recommendations?” asked Quipp. “That’s not so different than what I’m proposing. Do we want to pick a contractor or do we want to embed it within the town operations?”
McLoughlin said embedding the position was “too big a step.”
“Is this a municipal function? Is this a legislative function? Is this a state function?” asked McLoughlin. “Is this an HCRS function? Is this the hospital’s job? That reckoning has not taken place ... and I think it’s something that our town manager and our town staff can wrestle with and report back to us to see how we want to wrestle with it.”
“I don’t think we can build a department right now,” said Goodnow, though he added, “I really don’t feel like a lot of this work belongs in the town manager’s office.”
Goodnow also noted that the town should leverage the money it has now.
“We are very good at seeking out and getting grants and monies from very various agencies and pools,” he said. “[But] I don’t really know how we best access those funds.”
Maybe there should be a department for that, but not yet, said Goodnow.
Town Meeting representative Eli Coughlin-Galbraith said they’d like to see more of a community process but also thought it was a great idea to create a new department to implement the safety report.
Emily Megas Russell, who facilitated the report with Shea Witzberger, thanked the board for having the conversation, and said the town is going to need more time, labor and resources to find which recommendations actually make sense for Brattleboro.
“We can connect with each other to bind this work together,” she said.
The board settled on bringing the topic up for further conversation at a later meeting.
The full meeting can be viewed at BCTV at brattleborotv.org/brattleboro-selectboard.