Pownal to consider appointing town clerks

POWNAL — The prolonged ill-health of Town Clerk Karen Burrington and years of overdue license fee payments to the state have prompted a proposal to make the elected position an appointed one.

Burrington, the clerk here since 1991, has been unable to work for more than a year after being badly injured in a fall, and she had battled illness for several prior years.

During that period, according to local officials, overdue payments to the state for its percentage of dog license and marriage license fees had slowly accumulated, totaling more than $20,000.

In 2017, the Select Board asked for an invoice from the state treasurer's office, which showed that $15,485 was overdue concerning dog licenses and $5,330 overdue concerning marriage license fees, involving the years 2006 through 2015.

That amount has since been paid to the state using funds from the clerk's office, board Chairman Brownell said, and officials believe all related payments are now up to date, pending findings of an annual audit of town accounts or receipt of new information.

For the first time, Brownell added, the clerk's office will be included in the town's fiscal year-end audit by an external firm, and that practice would continue going forward should the ballot article pass.

Brownell said the Select Board and Burrington first entered into a verbal agreement, and later a written agreement last fall, that allowed the town to use all fee income collected by the office — including the percentage of fees that would normally go to the elected clerk — to address any overdue fee payments to the state.

When it became apparent the clerk might not return to the office after a fall in late 2016, Julie Weber, an assistant clerk, began serving as acting clerk.

Weber also is running unopposed for the post in the March 6 election, but with the understanding the job could become an appointed one if the ballot article passes. In that case, the elected clerk's term would expire 45 days after the vote, under a provision in state law allowing an appointed clerk position.

The Select Board essentially would then determine the salary and benefits and hire Weber or someone else as the town clerk.

During a Feb. 1 Select Board meeting, after Weber said someone in town had questioned her ability to do the job because of problems in the office, she asked the board to clarify the situation during the televised meeting.

"Can you please clarify the purpose of the ballot article," she said.

"First, I want to thank you for helping us out during a real hard time," Brownell responded. "You came in and helped us clean things up."

Weber "has done everything that has been asked of her and then some," he said, including taking courses related to the job and consulting with other clerks, and the office is functioning well.

Brownell contended in a subsequent interview that making the clerk's office a town department — rather than a separately run office under control of the clerk alone — would have prevented the overdue fee situation from occurring and/or highlighted it immediately through the annual town audit.

He said the board also could have stepped in sooner to help with staffing the clerk's office during Burrington's illess and subsequent injury.

With an elected clerk, Brownell said, that person is responsible for management of the office and the fee money, but the town ultimately would be responsible for any unpaid amounts due the state.

"It could help improve coordination between departments and the Select Board," he said of having an appointed clerk.

But not all Select Board members were convinced the clerk post should be changed.

Ronald Bisson said during a meeting that he would not oppose the clerk's fees being processed through the town but believes the position should remain an elected one.

The voters should be able to choose or remove the clerk, Bisson said, adding that the clerk's priority should be to "please everybody, not just the board."

In Pownal, the elected clerk receives a stipend from the town and keeps a percentage of the fees collected for various services provided through the office. The balance of fee income is distributed in specified percentages to the state and to the town.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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