Inheriting a mess: Cristelli's tenure as Town Clerk brought Newfane into 21st century

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NEWFANE — Gloria Cristelli, first elected as Town Clerk of Newfane eight years ago, knows how to get the job done.

During her time in office Gloria has brought the towns record keeping into the 21st century, organized recovery efforts following Tropical Storm Irene, and reveled in the opportunity to work so closely with her community.

Having spent 31 years teaching English as a second language, Cristelli has spent almost 24 years abroad in countries ranging from Peru to Taiwan. This international experience, as well as her teaching background, has informed and enhanced Gloria's work as Town Clerk.

"It's always vital to communicate, so having that experience as a teacher really helped," she said. "ultimately it was the problem solving and leadership skills that I gained from serving in community organizations and working in schools that was most helpful."

While Cristelli has an extensive background in community service, she did not initially seek out public service. Rather, it was fellow Newfane Garden Club member Sally Topitzer that first encouraged her to run.

"Gloria and I were testing the river for the Watershed Alliance, and she mentioned that she was bored after retiring from teaching," said Topitzer. "My husband and I both suggested that she run for Town Clerk because we knew that she was smart, honest, and hardworking — and she has been very successful."

"I had friends who offered to help," said Cristelli. "My sister and I drove around and knocked on doors, handed out fliers, and sent post cards ... it's always difficult to beat an incumbent, so it was an all out campaign."

Once in office, Cristelli faced a daunting task — 2,400 pages of land record documents, representing 691 property owners' records, that had not been recorded or had been recorded incorrectly, spanning three years from 2006 to 2009. Additionally, Cristelli had to tackle a neglected voter registration checklist and update vital records.

"When I first began everything was in disarray including cash, records, and documents," she said. "So we took on the task of organizing. We've not only gotten everything in order but I've also taken us into the 21st century with digitizing our records and ensuring that they stay in good condition."

Cristelli did not surmount this gargantuan obstacle alone, however. She brought in Vermont Associates trainees, individuals 55 and over that have been displaced from their jobs, to assist her in optimizing the Town Clerks office while simultaneously receiving training on municipal government work. Friends, family, and community members also pitched in for the organization effort.

"When Gloria took over the office everything was a mess," said Sandra Dowley, who had served as Newfane's Town Clerk for 13 years. Though others had occupied the office since her retirement, Dowley volunteered to help Gloria get acclimated following her election. "It took us almost three months to straighten the office out, but now Gloria has made everything computerized and organized."

"It's never really the fault of the town clerks, it's really about how much assistance you can get in here," said Cristelli. "You can barely stay on top of the day to day work that comes in."

Using Cott Systems software the Town Clerks office was able to make record keeping more efficient, secure, and navigable.

"Now people can come in and actually find the records they need, which I think is the best thing," said Gloria, "we can actually just print documents when they're requested rather than rifling through the files, which will leave the documents in better condition 200 years from now."

"Gloria inherited a mess when she came in," said Doris Knechtel, a Town Lister who has been involved in the Newfane town government since 1991. "She's made things much more efficient and made it easier to find information than it used to be."

Though this process was a massive undertaking, the mismanagement of town records was not the only major project that Gloria was tasked with during her time as Town Clerk.

"In 2010 I was also elected to the Select Board, and then we had Tropical Storm Irene. Partially as Town Clerk and as a Select Board Member I championed a federal program through the USDA for stream bank stabilization," said Cristelli.

Through these dual roles Cristelli worked with the Newfane town government to bring in experts to rebuilt the stream banks in six different locations.

It is Gloria's direct and determined nature that has allowed her to excel as Town Clerk, and she points to her hands-on work with the community as the most rewarding aspect of the position. Because of this, accusations of dishonesty or ineffectiveness have been most disappointing to her.

"You've got different personalities and people handle things different ways. I tend to be quite serious and task oriented," said Cristelli. "When people would say that I was lollygagging or other people were doing my work, I didn't appreciate that type of ignorance or the lack of willingness to just come here and find out what we do."

"We'll miss her, but Gloria is very community minded so I'm sure she'll be very involved in the future," added Dowley.

In her retirement, which will begin following Town Meeting Day on March 7, Cristelli plans to continue her involvement with Newfane Anew Community Volunteers and the Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance, dust off her woodworking equipment, and continue to herd her three cats.

"I'm looking forward to not worrying about details," admitted Cristelli.

Cherise Madigan can be contacted at madigancherise@gmail.com.


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