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Our town clerks want to keep being elected

Governor would have them be appointed — same for highway superintendents, tax collectors

March 17, 2009
By NATHAN BROWN and EMILY HUNKLER, Enterprise Staff Writers

Gov. David Paterson has proposed in his new budget to let town councils abolish the elective offices of town clerk, highway superintendent and receiver of taxes and assessments and simply appoint people to the positions.

Under current state home-rule law, an elective office cannot be abolished without holding a mandatory referendum. Paterson's proposal is subject only to a permissive referendum, meaning there is no referendum unless 5 percent of the number of voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election petition for one.

Town clerks in this area have been vocal about their opposition to the proposal and their determination to maintain their accountability to the voters.

This article focuses on town clerks. The Enterprise will cover the other positions in limbo in future articles.

This proposal will not affect the Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid village clerks, as they are already appointed.

Dan Mac Entee, spokesman for state Sen. Betty Little of Queensbury, said the senator is opposed to the proposal.

"She thinks that it's a position that, given the responsibilities and the knowledge that that person has to have, that it's better for it to be an elected position," Mac Entee said.

"I don't think it's a good idea," said state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward of Willsboro. "The town clerks are entrusted with people's money. They're entrusted with many functions. They have to provide the checks and balances on the money."

Sayward said she has spoken to many of the town clerks in her district about it, and they are all opposed.

"We're eroding our democracy when we take away the people's right to vote," Sayward said. "What will be next? Supervisors will be appointed? Assembly members? Senators? That's not America."

Harrietstown Town Clerk Patricia Gillmett agreed.

"It takes a right away from the taxpayers, and I personally have a problem with that," Gillmett said.

The Harrietstown Town Council passed a resolution last Thursday stating their support of Gillmett's opposition efforts.

Along with other town clerks across the local area and state, Gillmett signed a letter addressed to the state senate and assembly that reads in part, "The proposed language will have a devastating impact on local governments and result in the disenfranchisement of the voters of New York State."

Sayward said she didn't know why Paterson has proposed this.

"I couldn't tell you why the governor has done a lot of things," she said.

State Assemblywoman Janet Duprey of Peru said she doesn't think the state should mandate the appointment of town clerks.

"I think it has to be a local decision," she said.

Brighton Town Clerk Elaine Sater said the local government by-laws already provide a means appointing town clerks, but voters must agree with a referendum changing it.

"I know appointed town clerks and I know elected ones, but what I am against is taking that choice away from the voters," Sater said.

"I'm not for it at all," said Tupper Lake town clerk Laurie Fuller. "I feel that the people have the right to vote on who's going to be the town clerk. I think it's taking away another right of theirs."

Fuller said she, and other town clerks, have been gathering petitions to keep the position elected; Fuller said she has gotten about 150 signatures so far.

Franklin town Clerk Sandra Oliver asked the town board to support a resolution opposing the change last week.

"This is the way the state is going to eliminate local government," she said. "I have attended all the local government conferences that encourage 'sharing services.' What that really is is part of a plan to consolidate towns."

Oliver said the state Commission on Local Government Efficiency's report recommended eliminating assessor, town clerk, tax collector, highway superintendent and county clerk as elected positions. She cited proposals to consolidate tax collection at the county level, as well, as evidence of this trend.

"They would like to consolidate all the little towns so they can better track us, so we're not making policy that conflicts with state policy."

Oliver also said she thought the proposals were undemocratic, and she didn't like the removal of the local human element from government, saying she feared visiting the town hall to get information or seek help would soon be replaced by "trying to get help with your computer."

The board tabled the motion until the next meeting.

"I like the idea of electing the town clerk, but I don't feel I have enough facts here," said town Councilman Walt Kretser.

"I am against it only because it affects voters," said St. Armand town Clerk Cynthia Woodson. "I really do believe the people have a right to vote for whomever they feel will do the job within the position, whether the town clerk or any other."



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