Town Clerk: elected or appointed?

Written by Administrator
 | Wednesday, 08 February 2012 14:00

Duxbury selectmen placed an article on the Town Warrant that would change the position of Town Clerk from elected to appointed if a majority of residents approve it at the March 10 Town Meeting and then pass it at a subsequent election.

“The issue of having the Town Clerk’s position elected versus appointed is that now the Town Clerk’s position is a fulltime job where it used to be part-time,” said Shawn Dahlen, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “It now requires a great deal of expertise with technology and the fact that the Town Clerk has to go to Town Meeting to ask for a raise is kind of archaic.” Dahlen, who said has known Oates since he was little and thinks “she’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” was quick to point out it’s about doing what’s best for the town, and that changing the position from elected to appointed would have no effect on Oates’ current term.

Town Manager Richard MacDonald, who would be the appointing authority if the article were approved at Town Meeting and then ratified in a town election, said it’s appropriate that the law require residents of the town to decide.

“Anytime you go from a position that’s elected by the citizens, I think it’s better left to be decided by the citizens,” said MacDonald. “I’m looking forward to the future years it will give any Town Manager or the appointing authority the ability to find the most qualified individual to fulfill that responsibility.”

The current Town Clerk, Nancy Oates, has served for 29 years and sees no reason to change a system of government that she believes has always worked well.

“I don’t know who would be watching over me, but no one watches over the selectmen,” said Oates. “I guess it’s a philosophy that if you’ve got a Town Manager then everyone should be appointed.”

In a statement Oates read aloud at a 1998 Town Meeting and intends to read at the March 10 meeting, she said the position of the Clerk represents neutrality and open access to town government. Oates maintains that independence from town administrators and being accountable only to the people is what allows the Clerk to guide citizens “through the bureaucratic and regulatory maze that often seems the essence of government.” Oates said MacDonald came to her to notify her of the article. According to Oates, MacDonald told her that the town wanted to ensure continuity of the professionalism she brings to the job and the better way to guarantee that would be to hire a professional.

“It can’t have anything to do with me or against me,” said Oates. “It’s not personal, no, it’s just about power.”

Selectman Ted Flynn said that if Town Meeting were to pass the article and approve it at the polls, Oates would serve out her term, which ends in 2013, and he assumes Oates, 81, would retire at some point soon. He said that while Oates is a wealth of information, the larger issue is that Duxbury has grown and matured over the years, and a decision was made when the town instituted the Town Manager Act to run Duxbury with the professionalism befitting a multimillion-dollar business.

“The function of a professional government takes those responsibilities that elected officials did in the past, and professionalizes a position to run what is a $25 million business,” said Flynn. “All of these elected positions, as the town grew, needed to become professional positions.”

Efforts to reach Selectman Chris Donato were unsuccessful.

Residents appeared conflicted about the issue. Asked his thoughts outside the post office, Duxbury resident Wayne Ogden said he could see both sides had valid points.

“I suppose elected is a good thing,” said Ogden. When asked if professionalizing the position that has evolved into more than recording birth, marriage and death certificates, Ogden said, “So that’s the flip side. Other than the voters, who don’t pay attention, there will be no evaluation other than at the ballot box.”

Betts McGill, who was working at the Duxbury Consignment Shop, said she’s known Oates for decades and admires the job she’s done, but wondered what the benefits would be to having a professional to fill her shoes once Oates retires.

“I guess elected because of the length of years of the term,” said McGill. “I’d hate to have her job because I work the polls and see how hard she works, but there’s probably two sides to it.”

For Oates, she said it’s not about her, but about a respect for the past and the tradition of the office.

“See these wrinkles?” asked Oates, pointing to her face. “I’m not going to be around much longer. It’s not about me, it’s about the people of Duxbury.”