Saturday January 26, 2013

POWNAL -- A fixture of the Select Board is taking a break.

Nelson Brownell, of North Pownal Road, will not seek reelection to the three-year seat he currently holds. For many years Brownell had been the board’s chairman, but this year the board opted to elect board member Stephen Kauppi to the position.

Brownell indicated some months ago that he would not seek reelection to the board and would instead put his efforts to a position he now holds on the Mount Anthony Union School District Board of Directors.

Brownell’s time in town government and time spent as board chairman have caused some to criticize him for his sway over town actions.

"Anybody that’s in a position of leadership is going to get some of that," Brownell said, noting he’s heard himself be accused of running a dictatorship. "I’ve heard everything from Brownellville to God knows what the people say down there."

Brownell laughed during an interview Friday at the Banner when told of some of the nicknames he’s been referred to with, "Godfather" being one of them. He said his wife’s role as chairwoman of the Pownal Elementary School Board has contributed to his image as having a monopoly on political influence in the town. Brownell said while he and his wife, Cynthia Brownell, share advice on dealing with leadership, they disagree on many things, too.

"The only thing I would hope that I’ve done is that people have looked at it and see that I listened, I had respect for the individual," he said. "It doesn’t mean I’m always going to agree with them or they’re always going to agree with me, but at least I let them have their say and I will listen to what they’re saying, and I’ll argue the issue from my point of view."

He said one thing he has learned from his time spent managing government as opposed to a business or a department is how the customer differs from the citizen. He said a business typically handles one type of client and seeks to make each one as happy as can be. Government, on the other hand, has to see to the needs of a wide variety of people and often times finds itself making decisions that do not please any one party, but make all equally unsatisfied.

Brownell cited the town’s Waste Water Treatment Facility as an example. The project was largely finished in 2006 around the same time the cleanup of the former Pownal Tanning Co. was done. Brownell said to this day some are not happy about where the sewer lines were run, or not run, but the decision was made based on the area of town that needed it the most.

He said the facility’s completion put the town in a good place for economic development, but one of his regrets is the timing of it was bad. "By the time we put it all together, the world went the other way," said, referring to the economic slump that was noticed around 2006 but did not reach crisis proportions until 2009.

Brownell said he is leaving the board because he feels the current dynamics of its members are too contentious. He cited the current feud between Kauppi and Auditor Ray Shields as an example, and said people are no longer listening to each other and important things are not being addressed.

"I think it’s become too confrontational and because of that, not enough focus is being done on issues and things that need to be done and taken care of. My departure for a while, I hope, should help that," he said.

Brownell said on some levels, clashing personalities are good as they bring good questions to people’s attention but that is not what has been happening lately.

"I think at this point, when I bring something up to the current board that’s there, it’s ‘Oh, that’s Nelson trying to do something’ rather than ‘that’s Nelson trying to point something out to us," he said. "So it’s better that I’m not there."

He said his hope is with less confrontation, board members will feel like they can look at issues for longer and not get embedded in certain viewpoints.

"This doesn’t mean I won’t be back again someday," he said.

He said whether he comes back or not, the board faces some challenges down the road. He said the town is going to need more low to moderate income housing and will have decide on whether or not it wants to be more of a "bedroom community" than it already is, or diversify its tax base with industry of some sort. He said its unfortunate towns tend to see themselves as in something of a vacuum, as Bennington could benefit greatly from there being industry in the towns that surround it by having those employed folks come there to shop.

Brownell, 66, began his career in town government in the 1970s by serving on the Planning Commission, and after that the Zoning Board of Appeals, which became the Development Review Board after the town adopted zoning bylaws. He has also served as the Zoning Administrator for long stints and holds the position currently.

Brownell said he was born in Saratoga, N.Y., and came to Vermont when he was between three and four years old. He was educated in the Bennington school system and spent his early working years as a machinist, however layoffs in that industry drove him to learn more about computers so he attended the Computer Processing Institute in Hartford, Conn. He was then hired at the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute to work in its Information Technology department, where he has been employed for the past 40 or so years and is manager of computer IT operations.

After a few prior unsuccessful attempts to gain a seat on the Select Board, Brownell was elected in the early 1990s and has held a position on the board ever since.

"The local population didn’t know me at the time, I was an outsider," he said.

Brownell said he has lived in Pownal since the 1970s and sought out a position in town government because of his interest in environmental issues. He said the place to learn about one’s environment and make changes for the better is through zoning.

"I think my management skills and business sense brought some positive things to the board," he said.

He said the Waste Water Treatment Facility is something he is happy he was a part of.

"We had 200 pollution points in town. It wasn’t just the tannery that smelled. What really was the problem is there were so many open sewers, so to speak, and failing systems within the town, everything from the school having problems to these small communities like Pownal and North Pownal that had pipes running into the river, with homes connected to them, it was really a major problem. All our trailer parks were pretty much in a disaster zone because of it," he said.

He said the town has come a long way in manners unseen, such as developing funds for equipment to prevent budget fluctuations, computer systems to make things more efficient, and regular grant applications.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.