Elwell ready to come home as Brattleboro's new town manager
BRATTLEBORO -- Peter Elwell remembers the moment he realized that it might be possible for him to move back to his hometown of Brattleboro. Elwell is the town manager of Palm Beach, Fla. and as a former resident he occasionally looks at the Brattleboro Reformer website.
It was a Wednesday morning, Sept. 24, and Elwell read on the website that the most recent town manager candidate had removed his name from contention just two hours before the Selectboard was set to introduce him to the town.
Elwell, 52, and his wife had discussed a move back to New England but he said the couple thought it would probably happen a few years in the future.
That morning, as he looked back on more than two decades in Palm Beach government and contemplated the Brattleboro Selectboard's frustrating 15-month search for a new town manager, Elwell said a feeling overtook him that it might be time to go home.
"I'll never forget that moment," he said Saturday, two days after the Selectboard announced that he was going to be the next Brattleboro town manager. "It felt very real to me. It has happened so quickly that I still can't believe I have the opportunity to do this."
Elwell's father, Corwin "Corky" Elwell, was Brattleboro's town manager from 1960 to 1989, and even though the son has followed the father, not only in occupation but all the way to the same town, Peter Elwell said it has not been a direct route.
Elwell graduated Brattleboro Union High School in 1980 and entered Middlebury College thinking he would follow a career in communications.
During high school Elwell had an internship, and then a part-time job, at WKVT, and at Middlebury he was editor of the school newspaper.
By the time he left Middlebury Elwell decided to try to pursue a career in municipal management. He received a master's degree in government administration from University of Pennsylvania where he met his future wife, Wendy Harrison.
Elwell said that while he did not consciously decide to follow his father's career, the life lessons he learned from his father and mother were more important in shaping his commitment to public service.
"My father and mother put service before self. They set an example for my sisters and me," Elwell said. "It was not just the fact that they both gave hours and were committed to the people of Brattleboro, but their character and the respect they showed to others had a tremendous impact on us."
After Elwell did decide to pursue government administration over communications he said it was easy to commit himself to working on the local level.
When he was growing up Elwell had a paper route that included delivering the morning paper to the merchants up and down Main Street. Every morning the town manager's kid would interact with shop owners, and he said it gave him a keen sense of the impact that a good local official could have on the day-to-day lives of residents.
"What makes this work meaningful to me is that I am involved everyday with the people I serve," he said. "When you are working on the federal or state level I think there is a greater degree of removal. I want to be involved with the people who are affected by the decisions I make."
From Palm Beach to Brattleboro
Palm Beach is one of the most affluent communities in the country.
The average home price is more than $1 million and Elwell said even though the population of the two communities is similar, the size of government in Palm Beach is much larger.
Brattleboro has about 12,000 residents and Palm Beach just under 9,000.
But the Palm Beach budget is $65 million, compared to Brattleboro's $16 million, and in Florida Elwell oversees a municipal government of about 360 employees.
Elwell admits that there are vast differences in the economics of the two communities, but he says the experience he has in planning, communication, writing a budget and managing department heads will be directly transferable when he reports to the Municipal Center in Brattleboro on Jan. 20, 2015.
"Everything flows from the communication and relationships you maintain," he said. "One of my strengths has been finding a way to work together, even when we have two sides who don't agree. I have a solid commitment to collaboration that I think will be useful in Brattleboro."
Elwell first arrived in Palm Beach in 1987 to take a job as assistant town manager.
He moved to Roxbury, N.J., in 1999 to become township manager and then returned to Palm Beach a year when he was hired as the new town manager.
"Peter is a tremendous leader. He is not afraid to attack difficult problems and always does his homework," said Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio. "I have never seen a time when he was unpleasant or unwilling to work with someone."
Over the past 14 years, as town manager, Elwell has had to confront issues ranging from a pension deficit to environmental shoreline challenges to cleanup from a series of devastating hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.
Coniglio said one of Elwell's strongest attributes is his ability to gather the necessary background on an issue and then make sure everyone else who is engaged in the discussion has the same information.
He is committed to open government, Coniglio said, and routinely meets with city council members before a meeting to make sure everyone has the information they need to make the best decisions for the community.
"He has integrity and honesty and he never shies away from making a tough decision," she said. "Brattleboro is very lucky."
When Barbara Sondag announced in June 2013 that she would be resigning as Brattleboro's town manager Elwell's son, Jonathan, was just finishing his junior year in high school.
He did not apply for the job in Brattleboro because he did not want to move his family away from Florida.
His daughter Charlotte is a sophomore at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He kept an eye on the hiring process for a new manager in Brattleboro, which dragged on for more than a year.
It was not until late last month, he said, when the third candidate dropped out did he decide to apply.
The Selectboard said it would go through the latest pool of candidates, and after talking it over with his wife Elwell reached out to Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein to see if the town would accept his resume and application.
Gartenstein conferred with the rest of the board and told Elwell to forward his information.
"During the three rounds of town manager searches we reviewed between 100 and 150 applications," Gartenstein said. "Peter's qualifications were as strong as anyone else who applied."
As strong as a fit it appears to be, neither Gartenstein nor Elwell are blind to the very real challenges that await.
"The town of Brattleboro faces many challenges with an aging infrastructure. We have to make investments in our emergency response facilities and we have to address deferred capital needs while maintaining a level of service that people have come to expect," Gartenstein said. "We very much look forward to working with Peter to help develop a sound, long term plan for addressing all of these needs that is consistent with the taxpayers' ability to pay."
"I want people to know there are no silver bullets for addressing the issues people in Brattleboro are facing," Elwell said. "It is going to take a lot of collective work to make a difference and I am looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and collaborating with the staff and Selectboard to make sure Brattleboro moves in a positive direction Elwell is leaving a job in Palm Beach that pays him $220,000 a year for the $95,000 job in Brattleboro, though he said his pension makes the move more financially sustainable.
Still, he said he and his wife are making the move for reasons that extend beyond dollars and cents.
He is a little concerned that his blood has thinned and admits that winter is not his favorite season, but said he is looking forward to experiencing the other three seasons for the first time in more than two decades.
"As a child I could not understand how unique a place Brattleboro was, even though it helped shape me into the person who I have become," Elwell said. "And as I have grown up and traveled I have come to realize just how special it is. Downtown is full of life and vibrancy that you don't see in communities this size. Brattleboro is the kind of place that draws you back and it feels like a dream come true that I am coming home."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.
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