Essex County clerk rivals share their priorities
ELIZABETHTOWN — Newcomer Kari Ratliff is seeking to deny longtime Essex County Clerk Joseph Provoncha an eighth term.
Whoever clinches the seat will essentially oversee two offices: the county’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the clerk’s office. Together, these offices process passports, business filings, permits and licenses, and keep all sorts of records, including land transactions and property maps.
Election Day is Nov. 5. The state’s first early voting period started Saturday and continues through Nov. 3. Essex County voters can cast ballots at the county Public Safety Building in Lewis. See the Enterprise page A5 or visit the county Board of Elections website for early voting hours.
Provoncha, 60, of North Hudson, is seeking an eighth four-year term on the Republican ballot line.
He first ran for office in 1991 and has served as the county clerk ever since.
Provoncha went to the College of St. Rose in Albany and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education. After graduating he taught a fourth-grade class at a school in Albany, then a junior high English class before making the decision to come home.
“I decided I wanted to come back to Essex County,” he said. “There was an opening for a programs coordinator in the (Essex County) Youth Bureau.”
He got that job. A few years later, he was made director of the county Youth Bureau. When county Clerk John Rotella resigned in 1991 due to health concerns, Provoncha said he was asked to step up and run to fill his unexpired term.
“I didn’t know what the clerk did,” he said. “Finally they persuaded me to take a swing at it, and I won. I did a lot of studying between the time that I decided to run and when I took over.”
Provoncha said he’s proud of running a department that’s “financially stable” and regularly generates revenue for the county. He’s also proud of being a driving force behind opening a second DMV office, in Ticonderoga, and that a third office, in Lake Placid, is in the works.
If elected to another term, Provoncha said he hopes to reconfigure the Elizabethtown DMV office to improve its efficiency. He also wants to finish scanning a backlog of old documents, a project intended to preserve property records for residents and researchers to access.
“You think once your mortgage is done, it’s done,” he said. “But in the olden days of the county, if I bought a piece of property from you and I kept paying you every month, I didn’t have a mortgage; you held the mortgage. You would give me a mortgage and then a satisfaction, and that would act as the deed. That’s where the elusive water rights are; that’s where the elusive right-of-ways are hidden sometimes.”
Provoncha said he also wants to finish scanning all the notices of pendency — lawsuits involving real property that he says often include the best descriptions of property boundaries available. These records are especially important in Lake Placid, he said, because they include information about infrastructure built in preparation for the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980.
“Those are a treasure to the searcher,” he said.
In addition to being county clerk, Provoncha is the North Hudson town historian. In the past he has served as the commissioner of jurors for Essex County, as North Hudson town clerk and as a member of the North Hudson Town Council.
Ratliff, 53, of Westport, is a newcomer to politics. She initially filed to run on the Republican ballot line, but a successful petition challenge ahead of the primaries by a representative of Provoncha, Chelsea Merrihew, knocked her off the ballot line. Ratliff is now running as an independent candidate on the Time4Change ballot line.
A married mother of one daughter, Ratliff said she’s running to unseat Provoncha because she wants to improve the fiscal responsibility of the department and bolster office morale. The latter, she believes, will have a domino effect and improve residents’ experiences when they visit the DMV office or county clerk’s office.
“I think it carries over,” she said.
Ratliff currently serves under Provoncha as a supervisor of the county’s DMV. She works just steps from her opponent’s office. She has worked at the DMV since 1996 and has been in a supervisor role since 2005. She believes that experience makes her uniquely qualified to fill the county clerk role.
“I know that side,” she said. “I know in time I’ll know the county clerk side. I can do this.”
If elected, she said she’d like to find new ways for the office to generate revenue for the county. She has one idea for how to do that. The county’s DMV office in Elizabethtown currently receives additional work from New York City, for which it is reimbursed, Ratliff said.
“With the correct staffing, we could take on more,” she said. “We’re just understaffed right now. It’s hard.”
She agrees with her opponent that opening a satellite office in Ticonderoga, and adding an additional one in Lake Placid, is good because it presents an opportunity to shore up more revenue for the county by improving convenience for residents looking to access DMV services. If Essex County residents use DMV offices in Franklin or Warren counties, those counties retain those fees.
Ratliff is a graduate of Westport Central School. She has served as a member of the Elizabethtown-Lewis Central School Board of Education and as a member of the North Country SPCA board.
Green Light, license plates
In recent months, Provoncha has joined a chorus of other county clerks around the state in opposition of two controversial measures: a new law that will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for New York driver’s licenses, and a license plate replacement plan that would have required drivers to pay $25 for a new license plate when they renewed their registration.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, a few weeks after floating the latter proposal alongside a statewide poll on five designs for the replacement plates, told reporters last month it planned instead to work with the state Legislature on a new strategy. The plate replacement plan had been set to go into effect in April.
Ratliff and Provoncha aligned on their opposition to the proposed $25 replacement fee and the mandatory license replacement.
“It was just a money-grabber,” Ratliff said. “If it’s an option (to replace the plates), I think a lot of people will do it. It has to be their choice.”
On the rollout of the so-called Green Light law, which would offer undocumented immigrants the opportunity to apply for a license, Ratliff and Provoncha are also in agreement. They both want more instruction from the state on how to process the requests and want to know more about what the office should do if they receive documents that are in a foreign language and are unable to translate them. Provoncha was among the clerks to sign a letter to the commissioner of the state DMV requesting an explanation of the process.
“Nobody has ever put pen to paper to tell us how to do it,” he said.