Back on Town Meeting Day, Montpelier voters elected a new mayor, Anne Watson, an award-winning physics teacher at Montpelier High School, where she has taught for the past 13 years. In between her classes and meetings, The Bridge sat down with Mayor Watson to get her views on her new job, recent controversies, and her vision for Montpelier.
The Bridge: Being mayor seems like a job that is probably thankless in many ways and a tremendous amount of pressure and headaches—for very little money. Why would you want to take that on?
Anne Watson: It is also joyful. It is very satisfying to get to say, “Here are some priorities and agendas. These are topics that are worth looking into in our community. Let’s make change on these fronts.” I’ve been on the city council for five years now, almost six, and I’ve enjoyed my time on the council. It’s been tough at times for sure, but it’s really wonderful to start with, “There’s a problem in town. Let’s make a decision about how we can address that problem,” and then see a change.
Somebody was asking me the same question the other day, and I sort of related it to why people have kids. Yeah, there can be pains, and it can be really difficult, and it takes a lot of time, but, of course, it is also wonderful.
So being mayor is sort of like having a child?
I guess! Kind of!
I think it is pretty amazing that the mayor only gets $4,000 a year.
And I’m putting it all toward professional development.
Does that really seem enough? Should being mayor of Vermont’s capital city be more than just a part-time job?
This has come up a few times. If we made it a full-time job, it would require a charter change. It would also mean changing our style of government, which would probably mean not having a city manager at all and switching to a “strong-mayor” form of government. We could do that. But I have gotten some advice on this, and the thing that is guiding my thinking is that in order for a strong-mayor system to work well, you need to have a certain population size that can support a race for that type of job.
You want something like 10,000 people or so before you start thinking about a strong-mayor form of government. The strong-mayor system might work for a couple of years with a smaller population, but if you burn out the people who are available and qualified to do the work, and then you get someone in there who really is not qualified, it could be really bad. If the strong-mayor system works, it would work about as well as things are working now. If it doesn’t, it could be really catastrophic. But it’s worth having that conversation.
Have you been able to effectively handle teaching and the duties of mayor?
It’s been a little tough because I’m also coaching a boys Ultimate Frisbee team. The season goes through the beginning of June, and once I get through June, school will almost be over. And in the summer it will be very different story. I would say it’s tough right now. I knew it would be tough.
Teaching is the kind of profession that you can give to endlessly, and eventually you just have to draw a line and say, “Okay, I’m going to work on the rest of this tomorrow.” I think being mayor to some degree is the same, because if I was to do only what is asked of me from the charter, outside of city council meetings, I could very well be just about done. But I’m interested and involved in the city, and anyone who’s worth their salt as a mayor is going to be interested and involved. But, again, you just have to draw a line and say, “Okay, I’ve had enough meetings today” or “That topic is just going to have to wait.”
So far, in your experience as mayor, what have you seen that has inspired you as mayor and what has brought you down to earth and shown you the cold realities?
It’s all the little personal interactions that are encouraging. I might say, “Hey! I’ve got this idea. What do you think about it?” And you get responses like, “Let’s talk about that. That seems like a cool idea. What if we did it like this?” I love that! I love the collaboration. I love the brainstorming. I love the thinking outside the box, and I love being heard.
Another thing that’s been good is the synergy of the council right now. I feel like we’re in a really good place of listening to each other, and it’s got a really good vibe.
And the cold reality?
It’s always tough to make decisions that you know will disappoint people. And we had that just recently with an appointment. We had a lot of people weighing in, and we knew that we would be disappointing some folks, and that’s tough. There’s often no perfect decision, and there are downsides to everything. And people have different priorities.
It can be tough sometimes to put your intention out there and then to be misunderstood. That’s a little more complicated, I guess. I don’t want to throw the media under the bus or anything. Sometimes you sort of worry about being misquoted, about being misunderstood by the people.
Let’s talk about your agenda. You wrote on your website, “I’m committed to having intentional dialogue about the services we can and we can’t afford.” What can we afford and not afford?
Just for context, in the past, the way we’ve done the budget is that we’ve just said, “This is our tolerance for a budget increase. Dear Bill [Fraser], please come back to us with a budget that does not go over this percentage of an increase.” And then we really didn’t have a lot of dialogue about it, or we would have dialogue, but after it had already been presented to us. My philosophy is that it should be the council together with the staff that evaluates what we can and can’t afford. So there are questions like, “Can we afford another police officer” or “If we don’t add another police officer is that actually more expensive?”
So whether we can or can’t afford something has not been determined thus far?
My ideal case is theoretically if we keep performing all the services we currently have at the current levels, that would mean our budget would come in at the inflation rate. That would be the percentage of increase. It almost never works out that way. So then you have to look at how much over budget we are versus the investment, with money possibly coming back to us in the future. I’m more inclined to make investments that I know are going to give us returns in the future.
So coming back to your question about what we can afford, we have some big projects on the horizon that might require bonding, and that’s really where it comes into a question of what we can we afford, because we have a very clear line that we’ve drawn. There’s a debt limit that we have imposed on ourselves. If we are going to try to upgrade the wastewater treatment facility, for example, the facilities need a ballpark $9 million worth of work. Are we prepared to bond for that? And even if we spread that out over time, what does that do to our bonding capacity as we try to upgrade roads and such?
So what is at the top of your list of things worth investing the money in?
The things that rise to the top are affordable housing and energy efforts. I spend a lot of time thinking about how 40 percent of Montpelier’s housing units are rentals. If we have this net-zero energy goal, how does the renting population have any agency over their energy use? If the heat is not included in the rent, then ostensibly the landlord is not financially motivated to do any energy conservation work on that building.
The other thing that is of concern to me is the river. We did get an initial report from the Army Corps of Engineers about some options to help prevent flooding. Montpelier floods almost on a yearly basis. It’s a huge problem, and we know that climate change is going to make it worse. If we don’t do something, that’s damage we’re going to end up paying for anyway.
Any progress on getting Montpelier more into the digital age and upgrading technical infrastructure?
Yes and no. One of the things that I’ve been working with the city staff about is the searchability of documents, and we have actually made some progress on that front. It’s very frustrating if you can’t find what you’re looking for on the city website. We are in fact making progress on that, but what I would really like is to have a lot of data about the city available to the public. I’m interested in creating some kind of a dashboard for city data. It would be interesting to know how many jobs we have here or how many fires or how many car crashes and how long it takes us to respond to those crashes.
Is this the best way to spend the city’s limited resources when businesses are struggling downtown?
The data is important. I’ll tell you why. We can’t improve what we can’t measure. I am a science teacher, and it is my job to sit with data and think about what it all means. So let’s say we could count the number of cars coming off the highway. We would be able to see that after we put in “wayfinding signage” the number of cars coming off the highway increased or it didn’t increase, but then at least we would know. Not only does the data tell us where to focus our attention in terms of what the problems are, but the data also tells us how effective any attempted remediation has been. That for me is ground zero for everything. If we’re thinking about how to improve downtown businesses, what are the key measures we can be trying to up to make that work?
The recent city council statement you read to the public about excessive “vitriol, personal attacks, and absurd insinuations” has been interpreted by some to be targeted at the people who spoke at the public hearing on the District 2 vacancy. The statement does say you have witnessed this behavior “over the past several months,” but, if that is true, why did you issue it as part of the council decision about filling the vacancy rather than at some other council meeting?
That’s a great question. When I commented earlier about being misunderstood, that was actually what I was thinking about. It has been an issue for the last few months, and we did actually address it when it came up previously in those council meetings, and we were just seeing a theme that we wanted to address.
Was it really so bad?
In one of our previous council meetings we had looked at the sprinkler ordinance, and one of our councilors got a call from someone who said that Rosie and I were “naive young women,” who had been bullied into the position we had taken, and that we were ill equipped to stand up to it.
In hindsight I wish we had not used the word “vitriolic.” I think that was stronger than what would describe that conversation. Sure, people were disagreeing with each other, and it seemed like some people were getting upset. But there was a comment made at that meeting that I would call inappropriate. If I had to do it again, I think I would’ve used the word “inappropriate.”
Is there any hindsight about that entire process?
I’ve been very grateful that there were some people came up to me, who I knew were not supporting the person we appointed, and said, “Thank you for your work. I know you had a really tough decision.” And that’s the kind of response I hope for. I know we’re going to make decisions that disappoint people, and I don’t regret the process that we went through. I think it was all entirely appropriate.
I think a lot of this job is adequately hearing people, because I think if people know that you have really heard them and weighed what they have to say, and they ultimately also disagree with you, at least they’ve had a fair hearing. It was tough in the appointments situation because we couldn’t comment that we heard people.
What is your view on the Hampton Inn Hotel project? Are you fully behind that or do you have some concerns about it, especially traffic and parking.
I think there are some real questions that need to be to be discussed, particularly if the city is going to help with some upfront TIFF funding. One, is it something we can afford? And two, is it something that is going to help get our TIFF application approved, because we need to show that the project wouldn’t happen but for that upfront investment. Regarding the traffic and what that’s going to do to intersections, those are studies that we’re going to have to look at.
I’m actually really excited about the possibility of getting the Hampton Inn downtown. It’s a better use of space, and with the parking garage going in, we could be looking at net increases in spaces. One of the things that is also going to be a benefit is that we’re going to get additional rooms-and-meals and alcohol taxes out of the hotel. That should theoretically help with our budgeting.