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Wanted: more municipal clerks

SHOREHAM TOWN CLERK Julie Ortuno, shown at last month’s town meeting, is one of several local town clerks who have given notice, but agreed to stay on the job longer while their towns find a hard-to-come-by replacement. Independent photo/John S. McCright

ADDISON COUNTY — Longtime Middlebury Town Clerk Ann Webster knew her rigorous job might be a tough sell to would-be successors, so she announced her retirement almost a year in advance. In April 2022 she gave notice figuring that would give ample time for candidates to size up the position and get on the ballot for Town Meeting Day 2023.

But time and behind-the-scenes recruiting failed to draw any serious takers from among the shire town’s more than 7,000 residents when the candidate filing deadline came and went in January.

“There were people who we thought would be good candidates who were approached by different people to (gauge) their interest, and there were a few people who approached me who were interested,” Webster recalled. “But then they decided at the last moment that they weren’t going to submit petitions.

“Looking at it with the selectboard, I started getting kind of nervous,” she added.

Fortunately for Middlebury, Webster’s loyalty to her community prompted her to place her own name on the March 7 election ballot, with the proviso that her tenure would end at the conclusion of this fiscal year (June 30). So the Middlebury selectboard is now focused on appointing a new clerk who’ll hopefully get some training with Webster before the latter moves on to a well-deserved retirement.

Middlebury is not alone in seeing a lack of interest in its clerk position. Town clerks statewide — including here in Salisbury, Shoreham and Cornwall — have also been searching for successors so that they, like Webster, can enjoy either their golden years or move into different careers.

This reporter remembers competitive races for town clerk some 30 years ago, a time when the job was done on paper during an era when you knew most of your fellow residents.

But the mounting job duties, a municipal pay scale, the increasingly electronic nature of the work and the sometimes part-time hours offered for the job have made it a tougher sell — particularly in a state with a 2.8% jobless rate and better offers through the private sector.

And it’s a job that — unlike the school board or selectboard — where waves are rarely made.

“You’ve got this lone office where there’s very seldom a lot of controversy,” Webster said. “Sadly, if people think of running for clerk in some towns, it frequently has to do with the fact they think someone’s doing a bad job, or the office is in bad shape.”

RESPONSIBILITIES

Town clerk is a non-political yet essential position in municipal government. The clerk’s duties, among other things, include:

• Taking care of the town’s land records, including deeds, mortgages, liens and surveys.

• Overseeing (and issuing certified copies of) vital records, such as births, marriages, deaths and burials.

• Issuing marriage licenses.

• Registering dogs.

• Issuing car registration renewals.

• Issuing hunting and fishing licenses.

MIDDLEBURY TOWN CLERK ANN WEBSTER

• Serving as clerk of the Board of Civil Authority and Board of Abatement, including scheduling meetings and hearings, contacting appellants, researching pertinent background files and other materials.

• Managing local elections, including registering voters and managing the voter checklist.

• Assisting researchers needing access to documents — such as land records, property transfer information and tax bills — in the municipal vault.

• Serving as custodian of the municipality’s historical documents, such as town reports, grand lists, property transfer tax returns and school registers.

IN SHOREHAM

And those duties don’t tell the full story, according to Shoreham Town Clerk Julie Ortuno, who is hoping to exit her job this June after 10 years of service.

Along with duties outlined in statute, clerks are often the point-person for general inquiries that run the gamut from “where’s the best orchard for apple picking?” to “is the (Fort Ticonderoga) Ferry running yet?” Ortuno noted.

“It can be the phone call, ‘There’s a pig loose!’ or another sort of animal thing,” she said. “Yesterday, I had a man come do the door who said, ‘My wife was just diagnosed with cancer, and they told me someone had storage where I could get a walker and other things.’”

Ortuno helped the man find what he needed in Orwell.

“You just take care of what comes through the door,” she said.

Ortuno made it known last year she wanted to get done as Shoreham town clerk when her term was set to expire on Town Meeting Day 2023. An heir-apparent failed to emerge, prompting the selectboard to propose — and the voters endorsed — a change in the town charter this past March that allows future town clerks to be appointed instead of elected.

It’s a move several other Addison County communities have made to cast a wider net for town clerk candidates.

Since that change, Ortuno’s post has attracted one serious applicant, with two others asking for more information.

“Hopefully they’ll follow through, which would at least provide three people to choose from,” said Ortuno, who has agreed to extend her tenure for a while to train her yet-to-be-decided successor.

IN CORNWALL

Cornwall Town Clerk Sue Johnson will move on next March after 23 years of faithful service. She, too, gave her selectboard plenty of notice her retirement plans. And fortunately, she’s got an assistant town clerk who’s game for a promotion — Carolyn Anderson.

“When I was re-elected (to a three-year term) in 2021, I told the selectboard it’d be the last time I’d run,” Johnson said. “I’ve basically been thinking about it for the past five years, because I know someone isn’t just going to walk through the door and say, ‘I want to do that.’ So it’s helpful to find someone ahead of time to impart at least some of the knowledge you’ve accumulated over the years.”

Like Shoreham, Cornwall recently transitioned to a system of appointing town clerks. It’s a job that hadn’t drawn much interest among Cornwall residents. Johnson — and Joan Bingham before her — have held down the job for around 50 years.

“My goal was to let everyone know there was going to be a job opening and to come in and talk to me if they had an interest, Johnson said, “and no one ever did.”

She agreed with Ortuno that the demands of the position exceed its job description.

“In my case, I don’t know how to say ‘no,’” she said of the varied asks she receives while on the job. “I want to make everything to go smoothly and whatever I can do to help out is what I do.”

A PROBLEM WITH PAY

Salisbury Town Clerk Sue Scott told her selectboard a year ago she wanted to move on in March 2023. But no one ran on Town Meeting Day to fill the breach. Scott has agreed to extend her stay until June 30, and town officials are searching for her replacement.

“If no one was interested before the election, I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen now,” Scott lamented.

She put out feelers last fall through social media and word of mouth, and two people inquired about the job. One of them balked at the salary, the other never called back. The (part-time) Salisbury clerk’s job currently pays a $22,500 annual base, with another $2,500 offered for longevity. The job calls for 15 hours a week though Scott said it’s not unusual for her to put in 30.

“I do think the salary is quite low; the selectboard has done a good job raising it over the past few years. But in comparison to what I think the job (should be paid), it’s low,” Scott said.

Salisbury still requires its clerk to be a resident of the community, which reduces the candidate pool.

“I’d hate to see (the position) appointed, but I don’t know what else we can do,” she said.

Ted Brady is executive director of the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 1967 with the mission of “serving and strengthening Vermont local government.” He said towns statewide are having trouble recruiting and retaining town clerks.

“Every position out there requiring a specific skillset that’s unique and is difficult to fill right now, whether it’s a clerk, road foreman, town manager or zoning administrator,” Brady said. “These are professional careers that take a lot, and (in line) with the state’s workforce issues, there aren’t enough people to fill these jobs with the hours and the pay to go with them. Towns have had to get creative and do a little more recruitment than they’re used to doing.”

Brady has heard of several town clerks staying on longer than they’d like or offering to take temporary “assistant clerk” positions to tutor their successors.

“I don’t think anyone has found the magic bullet to solving our workforce problem, whether it be the clerk level, manager level or with volunteers,” he said.

 But things are starting to look up in Middlebury. An aggressive recruitment/vetting process has yielded several good candidates and Webster hopes her replacement is on the job before the end of this month.

While Middlebury residents on March 7 agreed to a charter change that will allow future town treasurers to be appointed, Webster hopes the clerk’s position remains elected. She’s not keen on seeing the community’s top election official selected by a group of people to which that person could be beholden.

“I definitely feel the fewer positions we elect, the less say people have in their local government,” Webster said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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