City Clerk, Appointed or Elected? Residents Weigh-In

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Thursday August 30, 2012

The first public hearing regarding the City Council’s proposed City Charter amendment to the position of city clerk was held Monday at City Hall.  Residents attended to learn about the the proposal and voice their opinions.
The Council’s proposal is to have the city clerk become an appointed position with more oversight enforced by the City Manager. This amendment will run in direct opposition to current City Clerk Donna Kinville’s petition to keep her position an elected one and to be granted full authority over hiring, firing, and disciplining the clerk staff without City Manager approval. Both proposals will appear on the November ballot.

The first SB resident to speak was Lynn Vera who serves on the Board of Civil Authority. Vera shared her views of why the city clerk should remain an elected position.

“I think this is a damaging discussion,” she said. “There’s a trust factor in checks and balances that has the city clerk as an elected’s important that we pay really close attention to...what the issue is and not make it too big.”

Resident Dave Sheets also spoke out in opposition to the Council’s proposed charter change.

 “The separation of powers is extremely important...This just doesn’t look like a good thing to do,” he said.

A frequent and prominent voice in the audience came from former Head City Clerk Margaret Picard who served South Burlington for 25 years before Kinville was elected clerk.  While speaking to the Council, Picard held a hard copy of the “City Council’s position Regarding the City Clerk’s Charter Change Proposal.” The document is dispersed throughout City Hall; it is also one of the first links on the City’s homepage.

“We’re leaders here in South Burlington,” Picard said of the first point regarding what other larger communities such as Burlington and Essex are doing; “South Burlington should not have to follow others,” she added.

Picard proceeded to defend Kinville saying that she no longer takes tax payer dollars (Deputy City Manager Bob Rusten was recently appointed Treasurer) and—elected or appointed—any city clerk will abide by state law.

“I think that the clerk should be elected because the clerk is a representation of the people, and the people have wisdom, and we have choices,” Picard said.

Resident Fran Johnston deemed the entire situation as “emotional” and that both sides were engaging in a “power play.”

Kinville eventually came before the Council to emphasize her position.

“The elected clerk knows their citizens,” she said.  They know the history of the city, the schools, the streets, issues that are out there, concerns that people may have.”

Appointed clerks do not need to reside in the city, she said, so “do they really care as much about their citizens?”

Councilor Paul Engels addressed Kinville’s point of the clerk being a face of the city and being approached by citizens regularly.

“I get stopped walking my dog, too,” Engels said, stating that he was approached by a citizen who was in agreement with the Council’s position. “We run into different people.”
Engels also brought to light that this is not the first time Council has proposed to appoint the position of clerk. The city clerk and treasurer were also separate, elected positions in the past. Up until Kinville’s petition, clerk as an elected position remained the status quo. Council was approached by Kinville, and that is what initiated the Council’s specific proposal response, he said.

The discussion changed into one about a specific instance in which, according to Kinville, a clerk’s office staff member left the job after being disciplined by the city manager. The level of discipline was excessive and consisted of a written warning “among other things,” said Kinville.

“I strongly object to the characterization,” City Manager Sandy Miller responded.

Some members of the public felt this information treaded too closely to discussion of personnel.

Picard added that when she was an elected city clerk, she was not afraid to approach the Council or city manager to address concerns. However, her staff may not have acted similarly if they had feared losing their jobs.

The statement was “extremely disconcerting” to Greco, who said that the employees are protected under union and collective bargaining agreements, and should not have those fears.

Public Works Employee Association Union President Martha Lyons disagreed with Picard.

“As an employee here, I do not feel threatened by not being elected,” she said. “I feel very confident that I can go to my direct supervisor or to Donna or to Sandy or to you [Council].”

According to Kinville, she did not request to have her employees be “at will,” however, as written, Kinville’s petition states that she indeed does want her employees “at will,” City Attorney Steve Stitzel said when Greco raised the question.

After hearing from residents, Councilors each shared why they back the Council’s proposal.

“I believe that changing the way the current city clerkship in South Burlington functions is another step in embracing the 21st century,” Councilor Helen Riehle said.

Councilor Pam Mackenzie said she believes that running this large city is similar to running a large business.

“This is not a referendum whether or not Donna is a good person,” Mackenzie said. “This is not a referendum whether or not we have had anything stolen in the past. This is not a referendum that the work that has been done by the previous city clerk was bad or set us up in a bad way. This is about moving forward.”

Greco brought it back to the question: what is the role of the city clerk?

“The clerk is an administrative requirement similar to Public Works, Department of Planning and Zoning, the Police Department...they are jobs that need to be done,” she said. “The clerk’s position is to manage the records of the city and to take in the money. If you go to the clerk with an issue, the clerk has no power to do anything.”

Office accessibility and finances were the final points of discussion.  In response to Kinville’s concern regarding the number of people who have access to the City Clerk’s office, Miller explained that there are seven keys and that he, the deputy city manager, the head clerk, two clerk employees, and the cleaner each had one.  One key is in a lockbox which can be accessed by the city manager, deputy city manager, and Janice Ladd, the HR coordinator and assistant treasurer.

Those who still would like to voice their opinions or address concerns regarding the two opposing City Clerk charter change proposals can do so Sept. 4, 6 p.m. at the next scheduled public hearing or Sept. 6, 9 a.m., at the final hearing.

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent