Saturday February 23, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

WOODFORD -- The town clerk has been a point of contention in Woodford for nearly two years, as a feud between Ronald Higgins and the Select Board has disrupted town business, and caused tempers to flare and accusations of lying on both sides at meetings. Now, it has also encouraged two opponents to challenge Higgins for the position on Town Meeting Day.

Running against the six-year incumbent are Frank Palisano, who is seeking his first public office position, and Virginia Ulitsch, a long-time town auditor.

Ronald Higgins

Higgins is the only candidate with town clerk experience, having served a half-dozen years in office and another 14 as the assistant town clerk before that. Higgins has a financial background and has served as the town treasurer for a long time as well, however he is not seeking re-election to the treasurer post this year due to "political" reasons. Higgins, who is certified by the state to be a town clerk and treasurer, also served as chief accountant in Bennington during the 1970s, he said.

While there has been turmoil of late, Higgins said he wants to remain in the position to continue serving the people of the community.

"I love the job, I love the people, and the only situation that has come up is political," Higgins said. "I've made it a point, first of all, to know the people, to know the regulations, to be familiar with property and I know things like the difference between a warranty deed, quick claim deed and trust deed, which I don't think the other candidates could tell you."

During his tenure, Higgins has tried to make himself available with nearly full-time office hours until the past year when he cut them to 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. "For a small town of 426 people, that's quite a number of hours," he said.

He has also tried to incorporate and invite the children in the community to the town offices. Almost every year Higgins has hosted a tree decorating at the town offices and invited Woodford Hollow Elementary students to participate in a mock town meeting.

His relationship with the Select Board -- and primarily Chairman Ryan Thurber -- has been fractured for more than a year. For a period Higgins refused to attend meetings or speak with Thurber except in writing, which the board said was the reason it did not finalize a fiscal year 2013 budget or tax rate on time. The confusion caused the budget to be voted down on the first try last March.

The relationship is still strained, however Higgins does not believe it will negatively impact his performance as clerk, nor should it slow down the Select Board.

"My function as town clerk has, really, nothing to do with the Select Board," he said.

Frank Palisano

Palisano has long been interested in politics; however, this spring marks his first run for office at the urging of others in town.

"There's been some controversy at town meetings for some time now and I was actually approached by some people in town (to run)," Palisano, a stay-at-home father who homeschools his children and works a variety of odds-and-ends jobs said.

Palisano is campaigning with Jim Horrigan, who is running unopposed for the town treasurer position, because the two work well together and believe they can complement each other's efforts in the respective positions.

While he does not have experience in office, Palisano said he has read the state's entire 109-page description of a town clerk's duties and responsibilities -- giving him confidence he can perform the job.

"I'm going to do it by the book," he said. "The responsibilities of this position of town clerk are black and white in the manual and if I abide by that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."

Palisano believes, if elected, the first few months he and Horrigan would have to dedicate much of their time in the office. During that time, he said, they would listen to the requests of residents and set office hours accordingly -- likely including evening or weekend hours.

"A big part is being available to the people of Woodford, which has been an issue in the past," he said.

What he lacks in experience, Palisano believes he makes up for with skills in communication, time management, organization and a willingness to work with others.

Virginia Ulitsch

Ulitsch had been an auditor in town the past eight yeas prior to her recent resignation. She still holds positions on the town's Cemetery Commission, Board of Civil Authority, and she is a Justice of the Peace.

Ulitsch said she decided to throw her hat in the ring for town clerk because of the troubles the position has been involved in of late.

"The town of Woodford needs to move on. It's been in turmoil for a while. It needs to move on," she said. "I think a new person would help with some of the problems the town is having."

Ulitsch said she works well with others and believes she can bring a positive attitude and working relationship between the town clerk position and the Select Board to benefit of the town.

"I'm all about helping the town," she said.

The town clerk position is not totally foreign to Ulitsch, who filled in for about three weeks last spring when Higgins was on a medical leave. She is also familiar with the computer programs used in the office through her work as an auditor.

That experience and her desire to help improve the town, she said, qualify her for the position.

"I know the town needs accountability as far as our finances. It needs to be black and white," she said.

Ulitsch, who worked at the Woodford Mountain General for a long time, now works as a substitute cook for The Abbey Group, the food service provider for the area schools.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi