by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 29, 2007
IT'S ABOUT HONOR
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Maybe you remember Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery"? Each June, by lottery, a small town just like ours picks one of its residents. Then, to relieve the tensions and frustrations of the year, they get together and stone that person to death.
It may be a little dramatic, but the story has been haunting me as
I've watched the saga of former Brattleboro Town Manager Jerry Remillard.
Yes, things got screwed up. An overwhelmed budget director weaseled her way out of town before we knew how badly she had kept the books. The town fathers and mothers, smug and happy that one of their own was running the town instead of a trained professional, went about their business. The Selectboard had been asleep at the wheel for years. It wasn't as if the town didn't need a new broom and a good sweeping.
I've been a progressive before I even knew there was a word for my political beliefs, but I've never been more ashamed of the word than I am today. To me, "progressive" means going forward, having vision, wanting social justice, working for social change. It never meant the kind of sneering, defaming, whining, petulancy, secrecy and infantile plotting against Remillard that I've seen in Brattleboro.
When the budget errors and losses became apparent, the buck stopped with Remillard and he took the blame. Just think of how we've longed for George Bush or Dick Cheney to take responsibility and change their actions. We'll die before that ever happens, but in Brattleboro, Jerry Remillard stood up.
But it wasn't all his fault. The same thing has been happening in other Vermont towns. Rutland - a city with a mayoral form of government - went through it. So did a few of the smaller towns, like Rockingham.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns, an umbrella organization for town governments, started studying the problem. The job seems to have outgrown the people who do it. The budgets have grown too big, the federal, state and local regulations have grown too complex, the services have become too complicated, the tensions in town are too diverse.
It's not like it was in the old days, when towns were small and self-contained, everybody knew everybody else, and town managers mostly oversaw small staffs and manageable budgets and grumbled about interference from the Legislature in their spare time.
What happened in Brattleboro was endemic, but Remillard took the hit and wanted nothing more than to make things right. He didn't deserve to be made the town scapegoat. He didn't need to be (figuratively) stoned in the town square. In fact, he needed all the support, time and help he could get.
When I heard Remillard was taking leave for health problems, my sympathies were him. I may be naive, but when the last selectboard held hurried meetings about a severance package, I wondered why they didn't leave it to the new board, which would have time to really deliberate.
Then I understood. The new board wouldn't give him anything for his 30-plus years of service, his intimate knowledge of the town, his honesty, his ability to take responsibility. When the figure came out, $75,000 over five years, I was horrified. It was insultingly low. But at least it was something, some recognition of his time and good effort.
Then a new board came in, a "progressive" board, and they're smirking, scapegoating and suggesting a "bake sale" to pay off their contract with Remillard. Maybe take up a collection. Left to their own devices, they wouldn't give him the time of day.
We have it hard up here in Vermont. The pay scale is too low, the winters are long and difficult, the growing season is short, the cost of educating our kids is out of control, and the property taxes have us in a nervous sweat. We have rocky fields and little sun and most of our old-time manufacturing has hit the road and taken the good jobs with it.
Yet we're still here. We live here because of something intangible, something called "quality of life," or "Vermont values."
When we speak about "community," we don't mean a few people like us with similar political ideas. We mean everyone. One of the reasons that civil unions passed here first, I believe, is because we really do need our neighbors' help. I've said this many times: when your car goes off the road in an ice storm, you don't care if the guy who stops has sequins in his beard and is wearing tights and a tutu. You're just grateful for help.
Soon enough, things here are going to become even more difficult. The weather grows unpredictable. The disparity of income between the rich and the rest of us continues to grow. Gas prices rise. The empire is crumbling. And the worldwide backlash from this immoral war? None of us are exempt from the longtime sorrow that lies ahead.
Still, the Brattleboro area is unusually well-equipped to withstand the coming storms. There is a deep pool of talent and creative thinking here. Some new manufacturing has come in to replace the old - even commodity-based manufacturing. Tons of coffee, bales of rubber and truckloads of wood pass through here on their way to market, as do imported goods from all over the world. We have people studying how to live and thrive in a world of lessened resources. We have organic farms, farmers' markets and community gardens. We're a leader in the fair trade movement. So many of our local companies and businesses are invested in the global marketplace that I don't have room to list them all. The arts economy is growing.
When it comes to Remillard and the town of Brattleboro, it has come down to Vermont values. It has come down to honor.
Remillard, an honorable man, displayed the best in Vermont values when he took responsibility for the waves crashing down about his head. Now the town needs to grow up and honor its agreement. And then move forward, because we all have a lot of work to do.