City Council puts City Clerk issue to Public Vote

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Thursday June 28, 2012

The City Clerk’s role, an issue that has been in discussion for about a year, came to a head Monday night with the Council’s unanimous decision to allow the city’s voters to decide if the Clerk’s position should be determined by appointment or election.

The question arose when current City Clerk, Donna Kinville, brought some issues before the City Council, including the distribution of keys to the Clerk’s office, and the hiring and firing of the office’s employees. Kinville was concerned at that time about the safety of her office, given its position as the hold safe for City documents, records, and monies, and for the dismissal of a Clerk’s office employee without being consulted.

What started with a personnel issue ended with a discussion about whether the position should be elected or appointed.  According to Kinville, who formerly served on the Charter Committee, the Committee “didn’t want to get into specifics” about her job description, but rather look at the position more globally.

The City Charter Committee looked into her role, as many aspects of her position are currently undefined or ambiguous under the current charter.  The Committee returned  a report to the City Council in February.  After some difficulty finding a space to place it on the agenda, the City Council discussed it last Monday. The Charter committee’s recommendation was that “the City Clerk remain an elected official and have the power to appoint, discipline, and remove assistants,” Peter Taylor, Chair of the Charter Committee, told the City Council.

Currently, the position is elected on a yearly basis.  The 3-year term, originally part of the position’s definition under City Charter, was struck three years ago by a Legislative Committee as part of a section that was defeated in 1977 but had erroneously made its way into the document nevertheless. Since then, the city’s assumption, one which City Manager Sandy Miller called a “gray area,” has been that the Clerk would be elected on a yearly basis.

Kinville feels having her position be an elected one is important.  “Other than the City Council, the clerk is the only voice the people have,” she told the City Council Monday. “They cannot be at City Hall every day watching.  That is why the clerk is there: watching out for the citizens.”  

As part of their fact-gathering process, the Committee looked into the history of the Clerk’s position under State Statute.  In their report, they found that “Vermont statutes have established a long history of independence and autonomy of the elected City Clerk position.”
City Attorney Steve Stitzel also traced the State statute history in his presentation to the City Council, specifically outlining areas of liability to the City, should the Clerk’s relationship to the office’s employees be changed. He pointed out that the US Supreme Court has worked to protect the rights of public sector employees, while the passing of the Civil Rights Bill protects employees against discrimination.  

“Those are changes that have occurred in recent decades and postdate the law that gives clerks the authority that they currently have [in many parts of the state]. This really dates back to the late 1800s and we have a different legal climate now.” 

Stitzel suggested that in order for the Clerk to have authority over the office’s employees, allowing her the ability to hire, fire, and discipline, they would have to be “at will” employees.  

Kinville worries that this transition (changing to an appointment) would compromise the integrity of the position.  “If this position becomes appointed,” she told the City Council, “I report to somebody.  If I see something happening, like we’ve had in the past, I couldn’t speak out against it because there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have my job.”

Kinville went on to exhort the City Council to “seriously think about this process,” and expressed her concern that “We are really giving up a valuable part of the city to give up the person in this position’s ability to speak out.”

Councilor Sandy Dooley made a motion to “Ask the City attorney to draft City Charter Change language that would provide some transition period during which the incumbent clerk would continue to run for re-election under specific conditions or until her resignation after which her position would become appointed.”

Dooley further moved “To make clear that assistant clerks are employees of the city with rights of the public sector, and that the hiring, firing, and discipline rests with the City Manager.”

The motion was unanimously approved, and will likely appear on the November ballot.  

“It never made sense to me why [the clerk’s position] would be an elected position,” City Council Chair Rosanne Greco said. “It should be the case where someone is appointed, with proper credentials.  It is an incredibly important, complex position that involves lots of money and lots of records. If they’re not maintained properly, it could spell disaster.  The voters get to decide if we elect or appoint.”

SOURCE: Annalisa Parent, Correspondent