For the last 17 years, Barbara Klim has served as the DeWitt town clerk. But on June 25, Klim announced that she plans to retire effective July 22, leaving a vacancy which needs to be filled immediately.
The town board must appoint a new town clerk to serve at least until the end of the year. At the board’s July 14 meeting, members discussed the possibility of changing the law to make the town clerk an appointed position indefinitely.
“My feeling is that people want smaller government, and smaller government means having fewer elected officials,” said DeWitt Deputy Supervisor Kerry Mannion. “I don’t think we particularly need an elected town clerk.”
Klim has run unopposed for the position for each of her nine terms in office.
“There never really was an election for town clerk during the last 20 years because she’s never had an opponent,” Mannion said.
But some residents, like DeWitt Republican Committee Chairman Matt Wells, are concerned with the idea of no longer allowing the people to select who will represent them as town clerk.
“It’s not in the best interest of the town: it doesn’t increase accountability or transparency of government, doesn’t reduce costs and doesn’t promote democracy,” Wells said. “I think it may add to this current board’s power and could lead to unintended consequences in the future.”
Town Councilor Ken Andrews brought up the point that if the town were to change the position to appointed, it could open the door for a potential conflict of interest for the town clerk, part of whose job is to ensure that the board is abiding by state law.
“One responsibility as town clerk is to tell us if we can’t legally go into executive session, for example, and the clerk is obligated to report us if we go into executive session inappropriately,” Andrews said. “If we appoint the person who sits in that chair, we can unappoint the person who sits in that chair. I think the person who sits there should be accountable to the people that elect them, not the board.”
Board members also went back and forth about whether or not to hire from within or to seek out someone new to temporarily appoint for the position. Andrews mentioned Secretary to the Supervisor Angela Epolito’s name at the meeting, but Mannion said he could not confirm or deny whether Epolito is being considered for the position.
“I’m of the mindset that we can appoint somebody from within,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have a very capable town clerk in Barb – overqualified for the position is an understatement. And I think the two or three people who work with her understand the position just as well because Barb put together a nice, efficient system.”
Following a lengthy discussion, the board voted 4-1-1, with four members in favor, one against and one abstaining to hold a public hearing to begin the process of creating a local law to change the town clerk from an elected to appointed position.
Public hearing July 23
The board scheduled a special meeting for 7:30 p.m. on July 23, with a public hearing to begin promptly at 7:35 p.m. at town hall. Because Klim is retiring the day before, the board hopes to temporarily appoint someone to the position as soon as possible.
If the public hearing were to be closed on July 23, the board will vote on whether to create a new local law. And if the board votes in favor of creating the law, a town-wide referendum will be held no sooner than 60 days later for residents to decide the fate of the town clerk position. If the referendum passes, the appointee will most likely remain in office until the end of Klim’s original term in December 2015.
But if the board votes against the law or if the referendum fails, the Democrat and Republican parties would have the option of choosing a candidate to run in a special election this year to determine who will take over for Klim until her term ends at the end of 2015.
“We’re confident that this will move forward and it’ll be one less elected official, and I think that’s what people across the country want – smaller government,” Mannion said.