EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 16, 2014

N.H. could make town clerks appointed

Proposed bill would change jobs from elected positions

By Alex Lippa
alippa@eagletribune.com

---- — New Hampshire town clerks are elected by the residents they serve.

But that could soon change.

Rep. David Bickford, R-New Durham, has proposed House Bill 1266, which would give towns the option of changing it from an elective to an appointed position.

Many town clerks oppose the idea.

“I don’t think it’s a smart idea at all,” Newton Town Clerk Mary-Jo McCullough said. “Selectmen would have control over everything, which is a big deal.”

Denise Gonyer, president of the New Hampshire City and Town Clerk’s Association, Tuesday expressed her views to Bickford and the rest of the House Municipal and County Government Committee.

“We believe the checks and balances of an elected official answering directly to the citizens is a necessary tool in self government,” she said.

Gonyer said the bill has been proposed several times in the past. The bill is based on a recommendation from the New Hampshire Municipal Association. The recommendation was made by selectmen and town administrators, according to Gonyer.

Cordell Johnston, who is on the Government Affairs Council with the N.H. Municipal Association, said finding residents who are qualified can be a problem.

“It happens occasionally that a town has serious trouble finding someone to run for the position,” he said. “With a town of 300 or 400 people, there’s a reasonable chance you won’t find someone qualified to fill the position.”

Johnston said clerks he’s spoken to don’t like to have to depend on the public to keep their jobs.

“Clerks don’t have to want to run to keep their job every year or three years,” Johnston said. “Look at city clerks. They are all appointed. Nobody’s ever had any trouble with that.”

But Gonyer said the proposal would give too much control to selectmen.

“There needs to be a buffer between the citizen and the town,” Gonyer said. “The people feel most comfortable calling the town clerk which they elected.”

Gonyer said she received support from several legislators on the committee. She also said Secretary of State Bill Gardner was against the bill. Gardner could not be reached for comment.

Rep. Jeffrey Oligny, R-Plaistow, said he hadn’t been approached about the bill, but would likely vote against it.

“It’s really the democratic way to elect the town clerk,” Oligny said. “Appointments are too prone to personal bias. I tend to allow the people to have a say in who it is who works for the government.”

Plaistow Town Clerk Maryellen Pelletier opposes the bill.

“We don’t need selectmen to poke their nose in where they don’t need to,” Pelletier said. “That hasn’t happened here, but there would be lots of trouble when they do things that the RSA’s wouldn’t allow them to.”

But Plaistow Selectman Daniel Poliquin would support the change.

“I think it would be a better option for Plaistow,” he said. “It would allow towns to control their own destiny so to speak. We’d get a little more control over the position and things could run more efficiently.”

In Plaistow, the voters decide whether the town clerk deserves a raise. Poliquin said they have denied raises several times in the past. This year, a warrant article has been proposed that would allow selectmen to control the town clerk’s salary.

“Most of the other towns have built in something like that already,” Pelletier said.

Under the bill, selectmen would have complete say over the town clerk’s hours and salary.

Hampstead Town Clerk Patricia Curran said she wouldn’t mind if the nature of the position changed.

“I think it should be an appointed position,” she said. “That way you can make sure you always have the most qualified person. I’ve always worked with selectmen on decisions and have not encountered any problems.”

Danville Town Clerk Chris Tracy said there is a reason the town elects its town clerk.

“It’s not a good idea,” Tracy said. “The people know what they want in this office. Being under the scrutiny of selectmen would be a big mistake.”

McCullough said she thinks selectmen would be in for a big surprise.

“Everything a clerk does is dictated by the state, not the town,” she said. “If they try to change some things, I’m not sure they would be able to.”

The bill will now be discussed by the House Municipal and County Government Committee, before members decide whether to move it forward.