Candidates for Brandon Selectboard focus on spending at public forum


SIX OF THE seven candidates for Brandon Selectboard onstage at Brandon Town Hall for the Candidate Forum on Thursday, Febru- ary 15. L to R: Ray Marcoux, Ralph Ethier, David Atherton, Heather Nelson, Doug Bailey, and David Snow. Not present: Aida Nielsen. Photo by Steven Jupiter

BRANDON—At a well-attended public forum organized by the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce at Brandon Town Hall on Thursday, February 15, six of the seven candidates for Brandon Selectboard introduced themselves (or re-introduced, in some cases) to the public and answered questions from the audience.

The candidates are (in alphabetical order) David Atherton, Doug Bailey, Ralph Ethier, Ray Marcoux, Heather Nelson, Aida Nielsen, and David Snow.  Mr. Bailey and Mr. Snow are running for the 3-year seat being vacated by Board Chair Tracy Wyman.  The remaining candidates are running for the two one-year seats currently held by Ms. Nelson and Cecil Reniche-Smith, who is not seeking re-election after one year on the Board.

Mr. Atherton, Mr. Bailey, Mr. Ethier, and Ms. Nelson all enter the race with Selectboard experience under their belts.  Mr. Marcoux, Ms. Nielsen, and Mr. Snow would be newcomers to the Board.  Mr. Atherton also served as Brandon town manager from 2015 to 2023.  

Aida Nielsen was not able to participate in the forum because of work commitments.

The overarching theme of the evening, mentioned by all candidates at one point or another, was spending.  This year’s anticipated budget increases, both municipal and educational, have Brandon citizens on edge.  Moreover, the town ballot in March will include an article asking voters to approve a $500,000 bond for a town-owned solar array.  Additionally, the Brandon Fire District, which is a separate municipality from the town with its own budget, is exploring a multimillion-dollar water-tank replacement project that will likely require a significant debt burden borne by the District’s customers.

The forum was moderated by Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bernie Carr, standing in for Town Moderator Bill Moore, who was unavailable.

The six candidates sat at a long table onstage and passed a microphone up and down the line as they responded to questions posed by attendees.

Because of space constraints, attendees’ questions and candidates’ answers may be abridged or summarized.  The full video of the event is available on the Chamber’s website.  Please also see “Candidate Questionnaire” in this issue of The Reporter for further information about the candidates and their positions.

The first opportunity for the candidates to speak was a request from Mr. Carr for brief opening statements.  Mr. Atherton arrived several minutes after the beginning of the forum and was not present for this round of statements.

Mr. Marcoux began by saying he was not happy with the town’s spending.  

“There’s no saving, no planning,” he said.  “We have to raise everyone’s taxes because we didn’t plan.”

Mr. Ethier stated that he wanted to “help the town be all we can be.”

Ms. Nelson said she “was ready to give back to the town.”

Mr. Bailey recounted his employment history in banking and his six years on the Selectboard.

Mr. Snow shared his employment with the state highway department and said, “I have a lot to offer on the budget side of things.”

Mr. Atherton stated that he was concerned about the budget and stated that “there’s a lot of unrest in town” because of spending and tax increases.

In the following sections, an asterisk (*) after a response indicates that that reply requires clarification, which will be found in the “Clarification” section at the end of this article.

Audience questions

  1. What do you consider 1 or 2 key values and how do you demonstrate them in how you live your life? –Lisa Peluso

Mr. Marcoux said that he was honest and straightforward with everybody.  “You have to have standards.”

Mr. Ethier said that he was honest, dependable, and hard working.

Ms. Nelson stated that she was thoughtful of others, was able to rethink her positions, and willing to keep learning.

Mr. Bailey said that he was “transparent” and that “people should feel like they can communicate with me.  I deal in factual information.”

Mr. Snow offered honesty, integrity, and dependability.  “You have to listen to everyone to come up with a solution for the whole town.”

Mr. Atherton said that he did not believe in procrastination and that he gets things done.

  1. How would you address the housing crisis in Brandon? –Janie Young

Mr. Ethier said he would make it easier to build multi-unit buildings on town water and sewer and would make it easier to derive income from one’s own home.

Mr. Atherton noted that the housing crisis is a statewide problem.  He wasn’t sure that the Selectboard was in a position to address the issue until the state legislature reforms statutes like Act 250.  “There’s no local solution until the state allows us to have one.”

Ms. Nelson stated that she’d like to see a relaxation of housing codes to accommodate families of various sizes.  “It’s heartbreaking to see families work hard without stable housing.”

Mr. Bailey agreed that the issue is difficult to address because of state laws but acknowledged that there are private citizens in Brandon already working on building affordable housing.

Mr. Snow noted that “Brandon as a whole is not affordable.”  But the issue is difficult to tackle at the local level.  “There’s no dead-set solution in Brandon.”

Mr. Marcoux also agreed that until the state changes its laws, the issue is beyond the town to resolve.  “We have to have safe housing,” he added.

  1. How would you address Brandon’s infrastructure? –Tracy Wyman

Mr. Atherton stated that he had a lot of experience with infrastructure because of his time as Brandon town manager.  “I know what it takes.”  He expressed dissatisfaction with the current town management’s handling of Newton Road, which flooded last summer and is still not paved.*

Ms. Nelson said that she would like to be proactive with maintenance rather than reactive with repair.  She also suggested that the town know exactly where funds for grant matches will come from.  “We shouldn’t be surprised by things.”

Mr. Bailey recommended using the 1% local option tax to pay for infrastructure projects, including paving.  He noted that the 1% funds could be used to offset some of the $300K allocated for paving in the proposed town budget.

Mr. Snow, who runs an excavation company, noted that constructions costs now are “ridiculous.”  He also deemed the town’s handling of Newton Road a “failure” that should’ve been addressed in 2 or 3 months.  He suggested better coordination between the town highway department and the water department so that installation or repair of water lines doesn’t destroy new paving.*

Mr. Marcoux felt that the town had been relying too much on the 1% fund without enough planning.  He also found the use of granite curbing instead of concrete in downtown an example of wasteful spending. Similarly, he criticized the installation of brick pavers that cannot be easily plowed.

Mr. Ethier suggested a 5-to-10-year plan for infrastructure and keeping better tabs on the longevity of various infrastructure around town to aid in planning for repair and replacement.

  1. What is the role of a Selectboard member? –Jan Coolidge

Ms. Nelson said the role is to “make thoughtful decisions for the town while allowing the departments to do their jobs. Offering guidance and looking at the big picture.”

Mr. Bailey stated that the Selectboard members “do not run the town.”  Rather, their role is to set policy and prepare the budget.

Mr. Snow saw the role of the Selectboard in tandem with the town manager: the town manager runs the town and the Selectboard “keeps the town manager in check.”  “The board has to do what’s best for the entire community.”

Mr. Marcoux saw the purpose of the Board as primarily financial: “to keep the reins on spending and to stay within the budget.”

Mr. Ethier also saw the role of the Board as setting policy and preparing the budget.  He also added that the Board must be “open minded” and willing to change its mind through public input.

Mr. Atherton stated that the Board “looks out for the best interest of the town as a whole.  The Board is there to assist, not micromanage. The Board shouldn’t be playing a daily role.”

  1. How do you keep your personal interests to yourself?  –Claire Astone

Mr. Bailey said, “I have very few personal interests.  I am frugal.  I’ve never asked for a pet project.”

Mr. Snow stated that “you have to do what’s best for everybody in town.  Get back to self-sufficiency.”

Mr. Marcoux said, “I’ve got no pet projects.  You have to hear what voters have to say.”

Mr. Ethier stated that he has “no hidden agenda.”  He added, “My personal interest is potato chips.”

Mr. Atherton asserted that “there should be no special interests on the Board.  It should represent the town as a whole.”

Ms. Nelson said that she was willing “to have a conversation with anyone who wants to talk” and that she was just one person on a Board of five members.  “Everyone’s opinion is equally valid.”

  1. Do you support the proposed town-owned solar array? –Shiraz Daya

Mr. Marcoux saw the array as “a bad idea.  Bad business.”

Mr. Ethier had not made his mind up and said that he’d asked the Energy Committee for hard data on other towns’ results with their own arrays.

Mr. Atherton said that he was not “anti-solar,” but the current proposed array is “not a priority.”  “Not the time to ask for $500K.  Other priorities first.”

Ms. Nelson believed the best path is to “follow the town energy plan while being fiscally responsible.”

Mr. Bailey noted that Brandon residents had asked the town to find other sources of revenue and that the array might well be such a source.  “No one is forcing voters to say yes.  Look at the issue yourself.”

Mr. Snow was not sure that a solar field was the only way forward, given the huge expense.  He suggested placing solar panels on town buildings or exploring hydroelectric power.

  1. What unique perspective do you bring to people with low and fixed incomes? –Vicki Disorda

Mr. Ethier said that he would “keep the budget in mind for all income levels.”

Mr. Atherton would watch the budget, help with energy costs, and keep budget and tax increases small.

Ms. Nelson said she would manage the budget responsibly and meet the needs of as many town residents as possible.  She would also focus on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mr. Bailey believed that the budget and revenue are vital.  He would distinguish between what the town wants and what it needs.

Mr. Snow said that he would try to lure businesses to Brandon that could pay more than low-income wages.

Mr. Marcoux said that local people would soon be taxed out of their homes and that the state would be filled with out-of-staters if spending weren’t controlled.

  1. What is your motivation for running?  –Janet Mondlak

Mr. Atherton noted that the 13% increase in the town budget was “unnerving” to him and that the condition of Newton Road had gotten him “fired up.”

Ms. Nelson said that she wanted to keep Brandon a place that her kids would want to live in as adults.  She also noted that it was important that the Board include women and younger people.

Mr. Bailey said that he didn’t feel that the current Board had successfully communicated with the public or one another and that his communication skills could help resolve the problem.

Mr. Snow acknowledged that he was “new” to town politics but felt that one shouldn’t complain unless one is willing to help change things.  “Now is the time to step in.”

Mr. Marcoux said that “the time has come to try to change things.  Put an end to the open checkbook.”

Mr. Ethier stated that he enjoyed the decision-making process.

  1. What is your position on electric police cruisers?  –Jim Emerson

Ms. Nelson would consult with the police chief, look at costs, and try to adhere to the town plan.

Mr. Bailey noted that “there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”  He suggested buying one EV and one gas-powered cruiser and tracking their performance over the next few years.

Mr. Snow stated that Vermont has a lot of EVs and that they have to recharge often compared to gas vehicles.  But he would gather more facts before making a decision.

Mr. Marcoux “would never own an EV.  Police should get what they need, not what the Selectboard says.”

Mr. Ethier noted that there are currently no EVs certified to be police cruisers.*

Mr. Atherton asserted that the Brandon Police Department’s current cruisers are not “as bad as people say.”  But he also felt that it might not be the right time to make an investment in EVs.

  1. Do you support the $92K appropriation to the Brandon Free Public Library?  –Faith Daya

Mr. Bailey said he “highly” supports it.  “It’s a resource we have to have.”

Mr. Snow was undecided.  He recognized the importance of the library in town but also felt that the appropriation could be lower, given declining use of the library facilities.  He suggested perhaps charging users a fee.*

Mr. Marcoux stated that he was opposed and did not feel that it was appropriate for the library to use tax money for its current renovation.*

Mr. Ethier supported the library’s appropriation request.

Mr. Atherton stated that the library was “very important” and that he “would hate to see it not pass.”

Ms. Nelson “wholeheartedly” supported the library and noted that the facility has changed with the times and is a safe space for many people in the community.

  1.  How do you propose to keep taxes down? –Sharon Stearns

Mr. Snow stated that the town office should be open 5 days per week and that he wasn’t sure the deputy town manager’s salary was necessary.*

Mr. Marcoux said the town should “close the checkbook” and criticized the creation of the deputy town manager position, suggesting that the position be eliminated.*

Mr. Ethier said that everything would be up for re-examination if the budget failed and that frugality was important.

Mr. Atherton stated that the Selectboard has no authority over the town clerk or the hours she sets.  He also stated that he didn’t understand the deputy town manager position and that he’d never had an assistant as town manager.*

Ms. Nelson said that the Selectboard had been responsible in how it had allocated the ARPA funds.  “We were efficient with what we have.”

Mr. Bailey said that he didn’t see anything wrong with the deputy town manager position.

Directed questions

  1. [To Mr. Atherton specifically] Is there a conflict of interest between your position as town manager of Pittsford and a seat on the Brandon Selectboard? – Brent Buehler

Mr. Atherton stated that he did not believe that a conflict existed between his current position as town manager in Pittsford and a seat on the Brandon Selectboard.  He also said he would recuse himself if any apparent conflict arose and that he had consulted with the VT Secretary of State’s office and been told that the situation was acceptable, noting that someone is legally able to be town manager in two different towns simultaneously. 

Final Statements

Mr. Marcoux would curb spending and save money.

Mr. Ethier stated that Brandon is his town, he has good management skills, and he will try as hard as he can.  

Mr. Atherton said it “breaks [his] heart to see where we were in 2012” compared to the last 11 months.  “We need to get back to basics.”

Ms. Nelson said she hoped she’d get another opportunity to sit on the board.  “I’ve learned so much.  It’s been a fantastic experience.  Everyone has an important voice.  I love Brandon.”

Mr. Bailey said that he enjoyed his 6 years on the Selectboard in the past and that he believes the town is in good financial shape now with a “healthy” reserve.

Mr. Snow said he had “a lot to offer” and that the Selectboard needs to base its decisions on what the community wants and needs.


Question #3:  Both Mr. Atherton and Mr. Snow reference the unpaved condition of Newton Road.  Brandon Town Manager Seth Hopkins reached out to The Reporter to clarify that the road remains unpaved because contractors were unavailable before the end of asphalt season, given the heavy damage sustained by roads in other communities during the summer floods.  Mr. Hopkins said both the Brandon Highway Dept. and FEMA agreed that the paving could wait until asphalt production begins again in the spring.

Question #9: Mr. Ethier stated that there were no commercially available EVs that are certified for police work.  Some models can be upgraded to police standards and the 2024 Chevrolet Blazer EV Police Pursuit Vehicle is specifically designed for police.

Question #10: Mr. Snow suggested that there had been a decline in library use, but the Brandon Library states that it has seen an uptick in users, surpassing pre-COVID levels in 2023.

Mr. Marcoux suggested that the $92K appropriation requested by the library would be used for the library’s current renovation.  The $92K is strictly for operating expenses.  The renovation has been funded through grants and private donations.

Question #11: Mr. Marcoux and Mr. Snow both questioned the deputy town manager’s position, based in part on the cost of the deputy’s salary.  However, Bill Moore, the deputy town manager, is receiving only $7,000 more for the additional work of the position than he was already receiving for his work as Rec Director and Economic Development Officer.  Combined with Mr. Hopkins current salary of $75,000, the total for the two positions ($75,000 + $7,000) is still less than the salary Mr. Atherton was earning ($95,250 + $3,000 gas allowance) when he left the position in 2023.

Mr. Atherton claimed that he had never had an assistant while town manager.  In Pittsford, where Mr. Atherton is currently town manager, there is a position titled “Assistant to the Town Manager.”  Mr. Atherton notes, however, that this position is entirely administrative with no supervisory responsibility, unlike the deputy town manager position in Brandon.

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