|Is there any life so ideal as that of a town clerk?
Im sure this isnt the first thought you have in the morning when you get to
work, but you should know that more than a few people in this state see yours as a job
from heaven, and daydream about becoming a town clerk, rather than anything else in the
I think this is because to an outsider your job looks
perfect. No hassles, no deadlines, no difficult people to deal with, all day laughing and
singing, happy in your work, eager to open, reluctant to close.
Of course, it isnt that way at all, at least not all the time.
Maybe it would be if you were the only town official, and what you said was the law. But,
as Jean Paul Satrte said, "hell is other people." Heres a list of the
complaints weve received from town clerks who have called us lately:
1. The town manager has declared war on my office. He wants to absorb
all of my duties. He wants me to report to him. He wants to evaluate my performance. When
I resist, he threatens to recommend no salary adjustment for me until I agree to his
2. The select board think Im its secretary, and nothing I can do
convinces them that it isnt my job to type their correspondence, send out their
notices and agendas, and rearrange my office and schedule to fit with their needs.
3. The Zoning Administrator expects me to open his locked files, find
material for citizens when hes not here, make copies, and make sure nothing is
stolen or put out of place in the files.
4. There is this irrational person who keeps coming into my office day
after day asking for things I dont have, intimating that I have hidden them from
him, expecting that if he asks often enough one of these days I will actually come up with
what hes looking for. Lately hes been asking for permission to through all the
files, including my personal files, to see what he thinks is there. Here he comes now.
Well, that doesnt some so paradisiacal, does it? Its always
something. On the other hand, consider these experiences:
1. The town made a special effort to recognize you this year at town
meeting, rewarding you with a round of applause. After that, people came up one after
another to shake your hand and thank you personally for what you have done for the town
and for them.
2. You were at the store or church or the fair, and suddenly everybody
seemed to know you and smile, and wanted to be remembered, even though many of them were
unfamiliar to you.
3. You found the long lost deed or birth or death certificate, after
considerable hunting. This time, no crowds form to thank you. This is a private victory.
It reminds you of the special talents you have developed. These are your records, and
nobody does them better.
4. The day was a perfect one. The vault opened on the first try. The
phone ran regularly enough to keep things interesting, but not so much as to bring on any
sense of hysteria. You helped people, and they appreciated your work (and answered all of
their questions). You had a good laugh. This is the kind of day that makes you glad to be
The good days have to outnumber the bad, or youd give up and not
do this work any more. The good days made you interested in this work, and they made you a
better clerk. The good days offset the bad ones, and make it all worthwhile.
The town clerk is an office like no other in the state. No other
official has such influence. None other has such power to affect peoples lives so
directly. None other so personifies the town or the ideal of duty and public service. So
how does it feel to be an icon?
I do not mean to flatter. Thats not the point. The point is that
in our daily lives there are many tensions, many failures, and many successes. We are
honored for things we havent done and blamed for things others have done. We get
stressed, and crabby, and want to run off into the night at times. Sometimes we find the
courage and the inspiration to do wonderful things. Thats the nature of work and
Over across the mountain, in the next town, the clerk is in trouble.
There is talk of converting the position to an appointive office, because the selectboard
wants more centralized control. On the other side, theres a clerk who fears
retirement, not for her own sake, but because there's no one who seems to be interested in
succeeding her. She wonders how long she can keep this up. Another goes to bed each night
in tears, afraid of the assistant clerk, who clearly is having some kind of mid-life
crisis and taking it out on the clerk.
This is a good time for clerks to stick together. The world is changing
out there, and weve got to change with it, but nobody expects these changes are
going to be easy. Lets try to make sense of the issues at hand:
1. Appointive, not elective. In a few locations last year the
subject of making the town clerk an appointive office was more than just talked about;
there were serious movements to make it so, through charter changes. Thats the only
way the conversion could occur, since general law doesnt allow for such a shift.
The whole idea is centralization. I think that the world is growing so
small so fast that theres a feeling in the land that one body, in this case the
select board and through it the manager or administrative assistant, really ought to
control everything. Otherwise theres no cooperation, goes the argument, and a waste
of limited resources.
But you know what it means. It means control. Independence doesnt
fit well with serving a boss or bosses. They dont have to keep you, and they
wont if you wont go along with their plans. Theres a reason to preserve
the independence of the clerk. The idea is this -- the more elective officials we have the
freer well be, because each officer will have to accept the responsibility for his
or her work. Without a pecking order, everybodys responsible, not just the top
The reason we give a discrete office the responsibility for records is
because they are so important that they warrant special attention. The day we assign these
record keeping functions to some other office, already weighed down with other duties, is
the day we see them start deteriorating.
I believe we must take a hard look at the impetus to make any town
official appointive instead of elective, and see if it makes sense. In the case of a town
clerk, in most cases, I dont see it.
2. Secretarial Services R Not Us. The way it used to
be, the town clerk was secretary to the selectboard and any other board that asked. This
was not a great idea, but one that had come to be because of the practical nature of
keeping records, and using a typewriter. It ended rather abruptly for most towns in the
early 1980s, when clerks all over Vermont said no. They said it nicely, but they said no,
Im not your secretary. Hire one or type the minutes yourself.
Now this was a good thing and a bad thing. It was good because the clerk
attended every selectboard meeting, and there was a harmony between those offices. But it
was a bad thing too, because it led to the invention of the idea that the clerk was staff
to the selectboard, and could be ordered about.
People need boundaries, particularly in public life. The line that
separates clerk and board ought to be well-defined. There neednt be a war over it,
lines drawn in chalk across the town office floor, but understanding who has what
responsibility is an essential part of the arrangement of offices in towns. Ive
always thought the clerk is kind of a check on the legislative body. The clerk usually
knows far more than they do, and can give signals, sort of like a referee with a whistle,
when the board is about to commit a foul.
The right balance is for the clerk to remain fully informed about what
the board does, without having to take responsibility for its work load. In some small
towns, of course, this separation is impossible, but even there, for the sake of the town
(and its officers) (and you too) everybody is always better off knowing where the duties
of the town clerk begin and end.
3. Judged by the Quality of a Successor. Clerks salaries
are still too low. But then who could blame the clerks for this? Having to convince a
majority of the electorate that the clerks position is worth a living wage (for
1999) is difficult in any situation. A town never feels its doing well enough to
afford what it needs. Its the most conservative organization there can be. But
salary is the most important factor in the decision of good people to run for the position
I guess we dont need recruiting posters for the
office"Uncle Ethan Wants You!"for the position, but you cant
shortchange recruitment when the time comes for you to vacate your position or better yet
a year before that happens. It isnt your job, in one sense, but if you care about
your reputation youll want to be sure that your successor is up to speed with the
procedures and the practices once youre retired. For that reason, you might become
an advocate for better pay before a new incumbent begins, to ensure that you can attract
the best people. More importantly, that you can inspire people to want the job for
all the benefits it offers, beyond the pay.
Theres nothing so difficult as taking over the clerks office
with no training whatsoever, and yet it happens each year in two or three towns. Some of
this we cant control of course, but theres no reason why in most cases there
ought to be some formal process of bringing an assistant on board and then do some real
training so that the first day isnt a nightmare.
4. Dealing with the Public. I know that it can be awful
challenging to deal with the public day in and day out - but you know, theyre our
bosses, and each of them wants something thats only available from us. As difficult
as they can be at times, its really not so hard to deal with the ugliest people if
we move quickly through the steps needed to get them a certificate, a voter registration
form, or dog license. Making no showing of impatience is the key. They dont really
hate us; most of them are just having a bad day, and theyre taking it out on us.
Why? Because we are next. Maybe because we are government personified.
I know the life of a clerk isnt easy. I know it is sometimes very
difficult to handle the stresses of daily life in the town office. But you know, Vermont
needs you. We need you to be the best clerk there has ever been in your town. We need you
to be healthy and satisfied. For everybodys good. We need you because you are the
spine of the community, the heart of the town.