This Saturday at Representative Town Meeting (RTM), town reps in Brattleboro will have a chance to take a simple step to make our town government more inclusive and accessible. Will we take that opportunity?
The Brattleboro Select Board is a powerful body that makes important decisions that impact everyone who lives, works, uses resources, and travels in Brattleboro; however, the job itself is accessible only to a minority of the population. Select Board members make either $3,000 or $5,000/year for a sizable amount of work that seems to only be increasing.
This makes it challenging and near impossible for anyone with a low paying or minimum wage job, or with a lot of student debt, or with a lot of dependents they are responsible for — such as children or elders — to join the Select Board. This is a clear and easily corrected example of how poor and working class people are excluded from Brattleboro’s local politics.
Over the past year, we’ve had many community-wide conversations about how to make Brattleboro a more inclusive and diverse place for people of color, for youth, and for the LGBTQ population, all of whom are statistically shown to have access to fewer financial resources as well as carry more debt than the rest of the population. Increasing the annual stipends for Select Board members is an essential — but by no means sufficient — step to making our local government more accessible to a broader swath of the population.
At the 2020 Representative Town Meeting, Tim Wessel gave a “conservative estimate” of 35 hours/month of Select Board work, which means he’s earning $11.90/hour as chairperson. (A non-chair Select Board member is earning $7.14/hour at this rate of work). While his ability to volunteer those hours is both admirable and much appreciated, the vast majority of people in this town would not be able to commit to that time expectation at that pay rate, as many people at the 2020 RTM testified. We have spoken to a number of people over the past few months who said they’d be interested in running for Select Board but can’t afford to do so because it would mean cutting out paid work that they rely on.
Here are some steps we think we should take:
We propose increasing the annual stipends for the Select Board to $10,000 for chairperson and $8,000 for other members.
This could be offered on a sliding scale based on income or overall wealth of the Select Board member.
It could be more explicit and easy for a Select Board member who does not feel they need the extra stipend to easily not take it (such as happened for the Safety Review Committee last fall).
Should we consider adding term limits as an appropriate or possible way to address the concern about “professionalizing” these positions?
Should Select Board members receive a Cost of Living (COL) increase each year (usually 3.5 percent)? Should they receive increases when other town staff members receive across-the-board increases so there isn’t such a long gap between pay increases?
One of the objections to increasing the stipend that was raised at 2020 RTM was a concern that paying the Select Board a living wage would “professionalize” the role, potentially opening up their seats to corrupt career politicians “just like in DC.” We believe paying a more adequate wage will make this a more inclusive and accessible position, rather than promoting power-hoarding, and that some of the ideas above could address that concern.
This is a change that would have long-term impacts on our town beyond the tenures of these Select Board members and we hope that their successors can come from a broader pool of people than are able to access this important role today.
As Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting members, we hope that our town will choose to raise Select Board stipends in order to make participation in our local government more accessible. This would be a meaningful step in the interest of fostering further inclusion and diversity within our town. We appreciate your thoughtful consideration.
Sonia Silbert, District 3 Robin Morgan, District 2 Abigail Mnookin, District 2 Fhar Miess, District 3