On July 23, more than 50 concerned DeWitt residents packed town hall for a public hearing to discuss whether or not to change the town clerk from an elected to appointed position.
Of the nearly 20 people who spoke at the meeting, almost all were opposed to the idea of making a change to the position. But despite the overwhelming backlash from residents, the board voted in favor of the proposal 5-1-1, with Councilor Ken Andrews voting against it and Councilor Joe Chiarenza abstaining.
“I respect all of the people here and their opinions, but there were less than 100 people here tonight, and the town of DeWitt has 25,000 residents,” said Councilor Jamie Frank. “And we knew going into the meeting that most of the people [in attendance] were going to oppose it. But I still want to throw it out to the rest of the people, who weren’t here tonight, so that they can have a vote.”
One of the major issues brought up was the idea that if the position were to be appointed by the board, the town clerk’s allegiance would be to the town board members who he or she was appointed by as opposed to the residents of the town.
“I am an American citizen by choice, not by birth,” said one DeWitt resident. “I lived in another country, where democracy is not alive and tyranny is what happens… When something is appointed, it creates an opportunity to ingratiate the person appointed if it is a paid position. And when someone is ingratiated, it opens up an opportunity for corruption and nepotism.”
Additionally, many residents said that they felt that the board was moving forward too quickly and not taking enough time to discuss whether the issue should be acted upon at this point in time or held until a later date, something that was echoed by Andrews.
“I’ve known [Supervisor] Ed [Michalenko] for many years, and I know in his heart he thinks he’s doing the right thing, but I adamantly disagree with him on this one,” Andrews said. “And I’m disappointed that we have not talked about this, because we’ve talked about a lot of things as issues come before the board, but this came out of nowhere. I’m very disappointed that it did because we usually talk about things.”
Michalenko said that the decision by the board was made in the interest of saving money for residents and in promoting a smaller government.
“There are numerous academic studies, reports and papers that address the subject of government modernization,” Michalenko said. “One of the common recommendations for lowering costs, improving efficiencies, de-politicizing and establishing functional government offices was to convert elected administrative positions to appointed positions. And one of those offices often recommended was that of town clerk.”
The idea for changing the position came after longtime DeWitt Town Clerk Barbara Klim announced her retirement in late June. The board has to appoint someone to finish out the year as town clerk and, if the referendum does not pass, then hold an election in November to determine who would take over for Klim until her term ends at the end of 2015.
Following the vote to establish the local law and hold a referendum, the town board voted 6-1 in favor of appointing Assistant to the Supervisor Angela Epolito as the new town clerk and tax receiver, which is estimated to save the town more than $50,000 a year if the position becomes permanently appointed, Michalenko said.
The savings will come from consolidating the offices of the town manager and town clerk by combining the offices. If the board were to hire someone who does not currently work for the town, a person who works in the town offices would have to lose their job in order to see any savings, according to Michalenko.
“Currently, the assistant to the supervisor serves as secretary to the town manager and the town engineer,” he said. “The clerk’s office serves as secretary to the town board. The proposal to consolidate offices would unify secretarial duties and leave the assistant to the supervisor position unfilled.”
The referendum to decide the fate of the town clerk’s position is set for Sept. 23.
Will there be an election?
The Sept. 23 referendum will be the deciding factor in whether or not an election for town clerk will be held. If it passes, there will not be an election as the position becomes appointed, and Epolito will most likely continue to serve as town clerk.
If the referendum fails, the Republican and Democratic parties both have the option of choosing a candidate to run for election in early November. That person will have about six weeks to campaign. Whoever wins the election will replace Klim until her term ends at the end of 2015, and will have the option of running for a two-year term in November 2015.
The cost to the town for holding a special election for the referendum is around $2,700. Two candidates campaigning for the town clerk position could cost more than $30,000.
“We are not stealing anyone’s right to vote, but rather the contrary – we are taking a decision to the voters and allowing the public to make a choice,” Michalenko said.