By Beth David, Editor
The Fairhaven Selectboard held off on voting whether or not to support a Town Meeting (TM) article that recommends switching the Town Clerk position from elected to appointed. At its meeting on Monday, 3/26, the board heard from the Town Clerk Study Committee and members of the public on the proposed change.
The committee was split, voting 5-3 to recommend that the town change to an appointed TC.
Committee chairperson Ann Richard explained the rationale behind the committee’s decision, noting most importantly that the TC position is the only full time position in the town that is elected.
After a lot of research, a lot of reading, and speaking to other towns of comparable size that have both elected and appointed Town Clerks, the committee decided that the position was largely clerical, and not a position that set policy in any way. Therefore, they concluded, the position would best be served by someone who is appointed.
If appointed, the person would have to be qualified. As an elected position, anyone can run for it.
Ms. Richard and most of the speakers who supported the change, made it a point to say they had nothing against Eileen Lowney, the current TC. Ms. Lowney has been in the position for more than 20 years and has indicated that she will retire and not run for re-election next year.
In order to change the position to appointed, TM must approve the measure and it then must be approved by the legislature. It does not have to go to a town-wide vote.
Ms. Richard praised her committee, saying it has a diverse group of people, with varied backgrounds.
“Which was great,” said Ms. Richard.
Committee member Phil Washko told the board that committee members knew they were balancing the traditions of the past with the future. He said in the end, the decision was a “no-brainer.”
“This is how we do it nowadays,” said Mr. Washko.
Committee member Kyle Bueno said he drew on his experience as an intern in the town of Middleboro, which has an appointed town clerk.
The work is administrative, he said. The position does not create policy, so there is no need for it to be elected. And there would be more accountability as an appointed position.
Carolyn Hurley, the current assistant town clerk, was firmly in the keep-it-elected camp.
She said the committee did contact other towns, and it was not a surprise that the places with elected town clerks said it worked for them; and those with appointed town clerks said that worked for them. So they just cancelled each other out, she said.
Ms. Hurley said that her office is very accountable, to the public, every single day.
Voting, she said, is her right.
“I want to keep that right. I want to keep that right,” said Ms. Hurley.
Bryan Wood, also in the minority, supported that sentiment.
“Nothing should supersede the right of citizens to vote,” said Mr. Wood.
The third minority member, Bernard Roderick, noted tradition in his opposition to the change. He said the position had been accountable to the people for 200 years. He said the survey results were “flawed” because they were contradictory. He said he believed that people did not understand the question, because 59% said the position should stay elected, but then 51% said the matter should go to the legislature to be changed.
Mark Badwey, a majority member, reiterated that the position “makes no policy.”
“It’s just clerical,” said Mr. Badwey.
He said he is against taking away people’s right to vote, but in this case, it was “black and white” to him. A person who is not qualified could be elected.
“We want to take the emotion out of the decision,” said Anne O’Brien, also in the majority.
Selectboard member Daniel Freitas said he has made it clear from the beginning that he did not favor a change because it meant taking away the right of citizens to vote.
“Government is supposed to be for the people,” said Mr. Freitas. “Not for a few chosen ones.”
“Thank you for your time,” Mr. Freitas told the committee, but “from the get go,” he said, he wanted to keep it elected.
The crowd clapped.
Selectboard member Charles Murphy would not comment because he had not had a chance to read the minority opinion.
About 20 people showed up for the discussion, and those who spoke were against the change.
Lisa Plante told the board that she did not feel one person should do all the appointing.
The change to the Town Administrator form of government is new for Fairhaven, and concentrates a lot of power in that position that previously rested with the Selectboard.
Ms. Plante said it was too much change too fast.
“We should just leave it alone,” she said.
Ms. Lowney, the current town clerk, asked why they were spending so much time on the issue when what we have is working.
Charles Hurley also spoke against the change, saying it was his right to vote.
“We’re not Middleboro. We’re not any town. We’re Fairhaven,” said Mr. Hurley, adding it is a small town, where everybody knows the clerk. “She does more than clerical. She goes above and beyond.”
Cathy Melanson also spoke against the change, saying she liked casting her vote, she liked listening to candidates explain themselves at candidates nights and then voting for them. She noted the problem with the vote count a few years ago, and said Ms. Lowney handled it well.
“This is our right and I like that right,” said Ms. Melanson. “I like being able to elect my town clerk.”
Dawn Devlin also took issue with the claim that the job is largely clerical.
“We have so many rights being taken away from us,” said Ms. Devlin. “This is one right I do not want taken away.”
The idea, said Cathy Delano, is a “so-called solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
“It’s our right to vote,” she said, and noted that the clerk’s office gets more interaction with citizens than any other office in town. “It is the face of Fairhaven.”
The change should be voted on in a town-wide ballot, she said.
Barbara Acksen also spoke in favor of keeping the position elected, agreeing that it is the face of the town. She said it is more than clerical, and includes managing the elections. It requires the ability to interact with many different people.
Of the non-committee members, only those in favor of keeping the position elected spoke.
Ms. Richard addressed some of the concerns, and noted some of the history of the position in Fairhaven.
There was a bit of back and forth at some point, with someone saying she felt they were being “reprimanded” by Ms. Richard, who responded that she felt that her committee was being “reprimanded,” by the public.
There was also a bit of tension around the fact that the minority report was not available online, but the majority opinion was. It was the main reason the board did not vote on the issue.
The article will be on the TM warrant, but without a recommendation by the Selectboard, unless they decide to hold a meeting before April 5, when the book goes to print.
Both reports are on the town’s website at www.fairhaven-ma.gov
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