Sustainability coordinator hiring shelved

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BRATTLEBORO — There won't be a new position in the town's Planning Services Department just yet.

Sensing a 2-2 split that would result in no action, the Select Board deciding against voting on whether to hire a sustainability coordinator at Tuesday night's meeting.

"For me, this is not ready for prime time," Select Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel said. "I don't see it yet. I think that this person is going to cost us money and then ask us for money, and that money could be used for what we want to get done in the first place. There needs to be a recognition that we have very limited resources. We can only do so much."

Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin said she is "very mindful" that the Select Board is charged with weighing how to spend the $100,000 approved at annual Representative Town Meeting in March for energy and sustainability projects. She questioned a sustainability coordinator's potential duties as proposed in a job outline prepared by town staff with guidance from members of a working group.

"I think we need to talk further to narrow this list down to what's being done and by whom and what's left on the table and whether we need a person to do that ... " she said.

Town staff is "amazing" at getting grants and finding funding sources, said Wessel. He wondered why a sustainability coordinator would be needed for promoting composting and recycling as Brattleboro leads the state in landfill diversion rates. He said the town's Department of Public Works is already making improvements around stormwater runoff.

If about $100,000 is spent between salary and benefits for the new employee, Wessel said, the money could not be used for action items to help the environment. He estimated more than $100,000 has gone into energy efficiency upgrades in town facilities annually for the last five years.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said the town has been exploring the creation of such a position for about two years. The job would involve looking at economic, environmental and social issues.

Brattleboro Energy Committee Chairman Oscar Heller said a working group of about 25 people came together following Representative Town Meeting.

"We've been meeting pretty regularly, trying to get a sense of why the community is interested in this position, why it came up at Town Meeting and get it into a shape where it would be a practical position that would be valuable to the town and something that town staff could feel good about it, etc.," he said.

Heller compared the potential scope of the work to that of an assistant planning director but with a specific focus on sustainability and climate change. Duties would include research, outreach, coordination between groups, monitoring projects and measuring success.

The hiring of a sustainability coordinator is supported by the Energy Committee and the town's Planning Commission. Heller also has a statement of support from Julie Tamler, chairwoman of the town's Americans with Disabilities Act Committee.

Before board members discussed their feelings, all members of the public who spoke were in favor of the hire.

Tony Duncan of Brattleboro said the consequences of climate change are likely going to be "very, very serious." He called hiring a sustainability coordinator a "crucial first step" in responding to the issue.

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"This is a very modest start of something that we all need to take incredibly serious," said Fric J. Spruyt of Brattleboro.

Planning Commission member Kathy Urffer said the position seems "a useful use of the funds" since the jobholder would be able to leverage more money through grants and create more programs.

"I think it's very important to pay attention to the work done by committees and pay attention to the will of the people," she said.

Michael Bosworth of West Brattleboro said Paul Cameron made "a lot of difference" when he served as energy coordinator. He left in 2016 and Phoebe Gooding shortly held the part-time job afterwards.

"I realize this position is different," Bosworth said. "It gets into a lot of other areas but I think the right person could still show the same amount of leadership in helping take us to the next step in a number of different areas."

Bosworth said Burlington and the Massachusetts communities of Greenfield and Northhampton have seen a lot of progress by having sustainability coordinators.

Having watched the video of Representative Town Meeting, Wessel said the demand for more funding had to do with emotions regarding climate change rather than "the wisdom of this position."

"Nobody's going to forget sitting in that room for 13 hours," Board Chairwoman Brandie Starr said, feeling reps wanted the job to be created.

Board member Daniel Quipp, a climate activist, said he has doubts about the job outline but it was not "reason enough" for him to vote against the hire. He also believes Town Meeting reps wanted the position.

McLoughlin said town staff is neutral.

"We do think it will add real value," Elwell said. "I want to make clear, we didn't go through a sort of diplomatic process of trying not be negative about this ... I think there's really something good here that would be truly beneficial to the community but I don't think we have to do it. I think there's a pure, hard policy decision for you as Select Board members to make about whether the true value that we see could be created out of this is sufficient to warrant the investment in this — not just as a this-year investment but the beginning of an ongoing investment."

Elwell suggested the board could end up with a split vote so it could choose to defer the decision to another meeting. Board member David Schoales was not present.

The subject is expected to come up again at the board's Aug. 20 meeting. A board member will not be present at the next meeting, which is scheduled for Aug. 6.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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