The Municipal Clerk truly is a community’s jack-of-all-trades, often overseeing multiple departments and performing numerous tasks daily to keep local governments and public services running smoothly and efficiently. Conversations With Clerks is a new DeCoder series in which we talk with Municipal Clerks from across the country to learn more about their unique experiences and what it takes to be effective and successful in their roles.
This issue’s featured clerk:
Town of Barnstable, MA
Can you tell us a bit about your community?
Barnstable, Massachusetts is the largest town on Cape Cod. We have about 451 miles of roads here and beautiful beaches both on the North and South sides of the Cape. We have a unique situation in that we are made up of seven villages including Marston’s Mills, Barnstable, West Barnstable, Osterville, Cotuit, Centerville, and Hyannis, so we are very spread out here. In addition to the many beautiful beaches, in the summertime we have artist shanties that line the walkway down to Hyannis Harbor—it’s really lovely. We also have a JFK museum and the armory where John F. Kennedy accepted his Presidential nomination. And since we were established in 1639, we also have many documents dating back to that time, which are fascinating and unique to our area. It’s a very historic region and, as you can imagine, we have a lot of tourists who visit us every year.
Was being a Municipal Clerk something that you had aspired to be or a position that you came to from a different direction?
I had a long career with the telephone company and was able to take early retirement. So, I was fortunate enough to find a job opening in the town of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, which is the town I grew up in. I was able to get a position as an Assistant Town Clerk, and I found that I loved it. I loved the history and I loved working with people. So it just went on from here. I have been the elected Town Clerk in Barnstable since 2013.
What are some of your key duties and responsibilities as Town Clerk for Barnstable?
My number one job is being the elections official for the Town of Barnstable. We manage everything from soup to nuts so it’s all on us — and it’s a challenge. Now that early voting by mail has been passed by the legislature, that adds another component to what can be a very detailed and cumbersome process. We have to make sure that [elections are] done correctly though, so that everyone gets their ballots on time and we can insure that they are counted properly when come back to us. We are democracy in action here and we want to make sure that everyone has a chance to vote because their vote is their voice.
We also have a hospital in our town so all of the birth and deaths notices from Cape Cod Hospital come through our office. We also oversee licensing for marriages, dogs, and businesses. We now have a lot of people who have home businesses, too, so that is another big portion of what we do here. We also administer the Oath of Office to all our Police Officers, which is a very special.So, we do a lot here and there’s so much more I could add. I feel though, that we are the hub of the town because more often than not, when people call with a question or problem and don’t know who to talk to, they start with us.
What would you say you like most about your job?
It’s a challenge, and every day there’s something new or something that’s happening that requires us to make some adjustments to our processes or day-to-day activities. I also enjoy meeting with residents.
In the years that you’ve been Town Clerk, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the job?
There have been huge changes with FOIA (Freedom of Information) requests. It’s the federal version of public records requests and we get them daily –sometimes several times a day.
We have 10 days to respond and, as the person that gets all of the requests first, I need to make sure that each request goes to the right department and that we get the information because it is not possible for the Town Clerk’s office in a town of this size to actually have everyone’s documents.
Another big change has been with the Open Meeting Law that requires that we post all of our meeting agendas 48 hours before the actual meeting. Each agenda has to come through the Town Clerk’s office to be posted officially with the date and time stamp on it. We then post them to the web. Again, when you have a town this size –and have, I believe, about 43 committees and commissions and boards — it’s a lot of work and it keeps us on our toes.
As I said earlier, early voting is another big change that has happened recently. It started for just the General Election in 2016 but now it’s here to stay.
How has technology changed your job?
While we unfortunately had a pandemic, what came out of it was the ability to process online requests for birth, death, and marriage certificates. Previously, all that had to be done in person or by mail. Going online makes it easier for the residents and for us.
We also have an online code (eCode360®). I absolutely love it and we update it probably every quarter. It’s a great resource and it shortens the time we need to search for information, which is a big plus for us and for our residents. We also scan a lot of our documents so that we can get them up on Laserfiche®, which is another time saver. I like both of these products very much.
How important is it for you as Town Clerk to have your code up to date all the time?
I can’t even imagine not keeping our code updated. I’d be swimming in paper and that’s a scary thought. I love the fact that we can send General Code things even before ordinances get fully adopted, whether it’s new laws, zoning changes or whatever. Once ordinances are approved, General Code posts it to our online code quickly. Then everybody can see it under the new laws (section of the online code). It’s wonderful.
What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out as a municipal clerk?
Put a smile on your face before you answer the phone. Let the person you are speaking with know you are happy to talk with them and work with them. Those customer service skills are so incredibly important. New clerks really need to continually develop and work on them because your residents are your customers. They are coming to you for help and information, and you represent your town and town pride.
Another piece of advice would be to prepare for and learn how to manage important documents.
There is so much in the Town Clerk’s office that will need to be kept forever on paper, so learn how to store and retrieve those documents and handle them properly. As I said earlier, in Barnstable we have historic documents dating back to 1639, so special care needs to be taken so they aren’t damaged and people can enjoy them for years to come.
Do you mentor new clerks?
I was on the board of the New England Municipal Clerks Institute and Academy –a school for Clerks managed by Clerks–which is held at a college in New Hampshire. It’s been held annually for one week every summer until the pandemic struck and now it’s coming back again.
This is a place where we spend time with clerks that are new to the business. We don’t get into the nitty-gritty of the job of Municipal Clerk itself because we have participants from all of the New England states and every state does things differently. But we do get into many important aspects of customer service. We spend time on such topics as letter writing, best practices for email, and how to confidently stand up and speak in front of the selectmen or town council. Those skills are essential to be able to carry on in the position and to help people grow into their new job.
What about education? How do you educate yourself and improve in your job?
In Massachusetts, the Town Clerk’s Association has quarterly conferences and a representative from the Secretary of State’s office is usually in attendance. These conferences are so important because everything that is new or is changing that can affect our town comes to us directly through those classes. This is a way for us to actually get the right information from the people that are behind the legislative changes that affect our job. It’s so beneficial.
I also attend the New England Association of City and Town Clerks conferences. There I get a higher-level view of some of the customer service aspects of the job. I also take classes at these conferences. There’s always an opportunity to learn something different, something new, or to get a refresher on a topic.
Any final advice?
Join associations. Get involved and connected. I joined the International Institute of Municipal Clerks. It’s a great organization that has all kinds of online learning. It’s also a great resource for monetary help, especially for the smaller towns, where clerks might not have the resources to attend classes or conferences. Also work to become a Certified Municipal Clerk. Take classes through your local town or city or through the New England Municipal Clerks Institute and Academy. You need professional points to get certified and those classes will get you a step closer.