By Dot Helling
When Eva Morse was town clerk of Calais, the office was located in a small addition and sun porch of her house off a dirt road near Maple Corner. Inside, you had to squeeze onto a small antique table to do title searches. The land records were stored in a very old safe and carefully placed like a jigsaw puzzle to make them fit. More than one lawyer working in the space on a complicated title was a challenge, more than two was impossible.
Not only were you shoulder to shoulder with Eva, but you were also surrounded by her massive orchid collection and a dozen or so cats, which often sat on your papers in the hopes of a scratch under the ears. The office was a hub of town business affairs, and there was no missing out on the latest news and gossip. Today, Calais has a very new and efficient town office with the land records safely and neatly organized inside a spacious walk-in safe.
Few of the other offices were as cozy and unique as the one in Calais, but many town clerks remain housed in older buildings with plenty of history and aged qualities. One of my favorite places to search titles was the old Moretown Town Clerk offices, which were washed out by Tropical Storm Irene and forced to move. They closed for lunch, and I would take the hour to run around Moretown, directed to new roads and trails by the locals. I spent days and days searching title on Ward Lumber Company properties and almost became a title record myself.
The town clerk’s office in Brookfield is another that retains its historic character. It shares a small clapboard building in the lower village with the town library. It has creaky floors, tricky plumbing, and drafty windows, but, again, has lots of history and character. Even in Montpelier and Barre, where the city offices are located in large “hall buildings,” we are embraced by the past. Whatever structures they work in, our town and city clerks carry large responsibilities, which include the recording and protection of public records and the most important job of overseeing our voters and elections.
Town and city clerks are elected officials charged with duties under Title 24 of the Vermont Statutes Annotated. The East Montpelier charter, which is consistent with other Vermont towns and cities, describes their “Duties and Responsibilities” this way:
• Serve as chief election officer of the town and as such: conduct all elections in accordance with state and federal laws; manage registration of voters; direct activities of election volunteers; and, communicate as mandated with the Vermont Secretary of State.
• Serve as a member of, and clerk to, the East Montpelier Boards of Civil Authority and Tax Abatement.
• Manage recording of all deeds and official documents.
• Manage issuance of necessary documents for, and recording of, all vital statistics (births, deaths, marriages, etc.); serve as registrar of all vital records.
• Serve as custodian of town records; ensure the safety and preservation of all records.
• Ensure accuracy and attention to detail in the management of voter registration, issuance of licenses and certificates, and recording of Property Transfer Tax Returns and other legal instruments; maintain associated records of documentation at the town and state levels.
• Manage the collection and recordkeeping of fees for licenses, recordings, and other documents, as well as for professional research; work with the town treasurer on any required reporting and revenue transfers to the state.
• Ensure good customer service to all professionals and members of the public accessing the services provided in the East Montpelier municipal office.
• Provide the public with accurate municipal information.
• Contribute to town report, website, and East Montpelier Signpost newsletter.
• Routinely participate in workshops, trainings, and other educational opportunities to ensure that the town knows and applies best practices to record and database management, and is aware of and properly handles state mandates and expectations regarding election issues, vital statistics, licensing, and recordkeeping.
• Perform other duties as necessary or requested to ensure the proper functioning of the town government.”
Most of our town clerks hold their offices as a life career. As a result, they know the pulse of the community and may be your first line of inquiry whenever you need assistance and don’t know where to turn. The responsibilities can be overwhelming, especially on election day, and especially when races and bond issues are contested. When you go to the polls on November 6, remember to thank the staff for their services, particularly in such days of emotional controversy around our politicians and ballot issues. They manage the system fairly and independently so that we voters can be heard.