At your service
When Stephanie Ciarleglio began the job of town clerk for Woodbridge 14 years ago, she recalled, "I didn't even know what the town clerk was."
That same lack of knowledge is probably true for most Connecticut residents. "People do not understand what a town clerk does. People think they are political figureheads," said Sandra Hutton, town clerk of Middletown and president of the Connecticut Association of Town Clerks, a group that promotes good government, cooperation and education.
On the contrary, the town clerk must master a wide range of subjects in order to perform the many different tasks required. The town clerk is charged with keeping, indexing, and preserving accurate and up-to-date records of land records, maps, tax records; functioning as the town election official; coordinating material to satisfy the freedom of information mandates; issuing dog and sports licenses; and, above all, providing help and information to the public. Ciarleglio reported, "The town clerk's office answers between 1,200 and 1,600 phone calls per month."
Despite the conception that the job is a political "plum," Patrick O'Sullivan, the Orange town clerk, described the job differently. "The town clerk serves all the people all the time. There are no politics."
Additionally, Town Clerks funnel information from other state departments, such as the Department of Health or the Secretary of the State's Office, to the local government and the community. 'The town clerks act as conduits between local and state government," said O'Sullivan.
There are many other duties, as well. In fact, the job description for the Woodbridge town clerk is four pages long - single spaced. Ciarleglio commented, "Some days your head is spinning, there is something different coming through the door every 15 minutes."
According to the Connecticut Association of Town Clerks or CTATC, town clerks function as the "hub of government; the direct link between the inhabitants of their communities and their government."
Since the scope of the job is so varied, the town clerks need to be well versed in many different areas. As O'Sullivan said, "It is a severe learning curve to begin with because of the various duties, tasks and responsibilities."
The duties that town clerks perform are dictated by law. Thus, they have to be familiar and current with Connecticut state statutes. This requires versatility and initiative. "With the laws always changing, the job is a moving target," said O'Sullivan.
When Ciarleglio took up her post, she was initially overwhelmed. "There was so much to learn. I used to take the Connecticut statutes home with me."
Ciarleglio tried to describe the complexity of the job. "There are 70 to 80 different kinds of deeds, and they have to be indexed differently."
She said, "Some documents are over 100 pages."
Furthermore, Ciarleglio said, "These have to be checked for completeness, stamped and correctly indexed."
Performing the many duties of Town Clerk appropriately is imperative, however. As Ciarleglio said, "If you don't do it right, you leave the town liable."
Hutton concurred, saying, "If we don't meet the statutes, we put the municipalities at risk for lawsuits."
Although the position of Town Clerk is part of state statute, each town has the right to establish the way the job is filled. Many towns have town clerks that are elected to that position, but in 35 - 40 towns, they are appointed. Some appointments are for life; others change as frequently as every two years. Bethany and Orange elect their respective town clerks, while Woodbridge's counterpart is appointed.
The state statutes provide for a certification program for town clerks, as well, but certification is not mandated. CTATC in conjunction with the Secretary of the State, runs a certification program through the Central Connecticut State University. The program takes three years to complete. After fulfilling the requirements, an individual can receive Connecticut certification. Credits also are given for job experience.
"It's very disconcerting. In some towns the town clerk can come and go every two years," said Hutton.
The program for certification, however, takes three years. "The town clerks do not get the opportunity to complete the training."
In view of the complexity of the job, Hutton said, "It would be in the town's best interest to require certification, but it is up to the municipality."
The concern about longevity has come to the forefront in Wallingford, where the town clerk is a political appointee. Within the last few weeks, the town has wrested control of the job from Kathryn Zandri, town clerk for the past two years, and given it to another political appointee, Barabara Thompson. According to Terry Sullivan, personnel supervisor for Wallingford, the incoming town clerk has no previous experience to bring to the job. "She will be receiving training from her subordinates."
Sullivan asserted that the town clerk assistants would provide Thompson with appropriate support to "get to know the job."
Sullivan also pointed out that there was a network of resources available, such as the CTATC, the Secretary of the State's Office and other town clerks.
Nancy McCarthy, Bethany town clerk, expressed some concerns about this haphazard transfer. "I feel the person should have some experience before stepping in."
McCarthy was a Bethany town clerk assistant for 17 years before being elected to the position of town clerk. She added, "You need to be in the office at least four years to go through the full cycle (of tasks)."
The CTATC has been discussing this issue of effective continuity for a number of years. Some feel certification should be mandatory; others feel that town clerks should be judged on a performance basis. Most feel, however, that the casual handoff of such an important job is not in anyone's best interests.
"Over a period of time, the town clerk develops a knowledge base that creates stability for the town, the leadership and the citizens," said Hutton.
The issue of recertification has also been considered by the CTATC. The Town Clerks duties, already a complicated and varied array, are subject to constant modifications via legislative changes. It is essential for them to stay current and knowledgeable. Establishing recertification standards would help ensure that town clerks would be able to perform the job competently.
Presently, the CTATC performs educational outreach for the town clerks that serve the 169 municipalities of Connecticut. Two times a year, the group holds statewide conferences to help them stay abreast of current issues and legislation.
During these meetings, seminars are offered to educate the town clerks. They also have the opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences.
Town clerks are a dedicated group, fortunately. Although there are no state requirements that need to be met to perform this job, most Town Clerks take their job quite seriously, spending countless hours satisfying the mandates of the state, the town, and the community.
In spite of the many demands of the job, Ciarleglio said, "I love my job."
She continued, "town clerks try to be as helpful as they can because that's their job."
O'Sullivan said, "The town clerk is the best job. You're the ambassador for the town. You're there just to help."