Newfane weighs charter changes
NEWFANE -- Should Newfane's town clerk and treasurer be appointed by the Selectboard, rather than elected by residents?
That's the question put to newly named committee members who are expected to present their findings on the matter to the Selectboard by early October.
Switching the clerk and treasurer from elected to appointed positions would require modifying the town charter, and such a change would have to be approved first by voters and then by the state Legislature.
But Selectboard members are pledging to at least look more deeply into the issue. While there already are concerns about the impacts of decreasing the number of elected officials, some say the move could improve accountability.
For example, "if issues arise with the appointed town clerk, the Selectboard would have the same oversight, management, supervisory and administrative authority over that position as it has over any other non-elected official who works for the town," Selectboard Chairman Gary Katz said.
"That creates a clearer line of authority," he added. "And in my view, it better protects the people's interests."
Newfane has two well-established officials at each of the positions in question: Gloria Cristelli has served as town clerk for more than five years, and Treasurer Maureen Albert-Piascik has served for more than a decade.
Both run for office annually. Earlier this year, Cristelli bested Cina Friend to win a new term, while Albert-Piascik beat challenger Merle Tessier.
But Selectboard members this week said they've heard from several residents who inquired about switching both offices to appointed positions.
"We've been asked by the public to do this, and I think we owe it to them to do it," Selectboard Vice Chairman Todd Lawley said at a meeting Thursday evening.
There is some support on the Selectboard for making the change. In addition to boosting accountability, Katz said, it's also about ensuring that a field of the best, most-qualified people are available to serve in town offices.
"It's become increasingly difficult over the years to get people to step forward and take positions in town," he said. "And I don't think that's different from any other town."
Selectboard member Chris Druke added that, "I'm seeing more and more towns that are coming out with this approach. I think we should look at it."
Locally, the town of Westminster is holding public meetings on making the same change; a vote is scheduled there during the Aug. 26 primary. Also, Katz said he and two members of the new study committee have met with a Selectboard member in Jamaica, which switched its town clerk and treasurer to appointed positions several years ago.
Lawley said the charter revision might make life easier for the treasurer and town clerk.
"You would all be town employees -- all getting the same raises as everybody else, getting the same benefits as everybody else," he said. "You don't have to worry about running for your position every year."
But not everyone is as enthusiastic, and there are unavoidable undercurrents in the Newfane charter discussion.
There has been friction lately in Newfane between Selectboard members and Cristelli, who serves on the Selectboard in addition to her work as town clerk. That was apparent once again at Thursday night's meeting, when the board and Cristelli engaged in an extended, sometimes-heated debate about the town's progress -- or, depending on the perspective, a lack of progress -- in both digitizing and restoring town records.
The discussion ended with appointment of a committee that is supposed to bring prioritized recommendations on digitization, restoration and preservation to the Selectboard next month. The charter-change discussion immediately followed that debate, and Cristelli noted ongoing complaints about her serving in two elected capacities.
"There has been significant opposition to the town clerk also being on the Selectboard, which is a totally legal process, and the voters of the town of Newfane voted the sitting town clerk to be on the Selectboard," she said.
If the town clerk becomes an appointed position, Cristelli warned, evaluation of that person's job performance "can't ever become a popularity contest."
"Just because a town clerk could be an assertive person shouldn't mean they should then just be fired," she said.
Albert-Piascik wasn't at Thursday night's meeting. Contacted Friday, she said she would have to look into the matter before deciding whether she would support or oppose it.
But Albert-Piascik said she had a few concerns.
"Who's going to supervise the treasurer?" she asked. "Because nobody really knows what the job involves."
She also worried that the charter change could result in fewer checks and balances among Newfane officials.
"I think the town needs more elected officials than just the Selectboard," Albert-Piascik said.
Such issues will be weighed by the new committee, which consists of residents Greg Record, Larry Robinson and Cristine and Wayne White. Katz is hoping for fairly straightforward recommendations from the committee, though he noted that opening the town charter could open the door to a host of proposed revisions.
"They could see other places where, in their view, the town could benefit from a change in the way its governed," he said.
The goal is to solicit opinions and then bring any proposed charter changes to voters at Town Meeting in March. If there is an affirmative vote, Katz said, charter revision would require ratification in Montpelier.
"It goes to the Legislature, which has the final OK on it," Katz said, while adding that it's his understanding that "the Legislature never turns down these changes if the townspeople have voted that that's the way they want to govern their town."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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