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New Hampshire

January 15, 2008

Attention to detail served retiring town clerk well

SALEM - Barbara Lessard is one of those people who actually liked taking a math final in high school. Seriously.

"I was the one that had a ball doing my final in trigonometry," she said yesterday.

Now, the 63-year-old Salem town clerk is retiring from her post - a job that for 23 years has required the kind of meticulous attention to detail and numbers that would serve one well on, say, a math test.

"That's why there were no (election) disasters, because she averted all of them simply by being almost over-prepared," said Laurence Belair, who was Salem's town moderator for 18 years, ending in 2002.

Lessard, a mother of five and grandmother of 10, is not running for re-election in March. In part, that's because the state's retirement fund is running low and health benefits will be uncertain for those retiring after July 1. But, she said, it's also time to move on.

"Twenty-five years in the same place. Sometimes you need some freshness," she said.

Lessard - who started working in the town clerk's office in 1983 and became clerk herself in 1985 - has overseen massive changes in the way elections are conducted, cars are registered and town records are kept.

She was at the helm in 1989 when Salem did away with punch card ballots, the kind that would later cause so many problems during the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

"Those were the hanging chad-type ones," Lessard said.

She led an effort in 2005 to get old town records - some dating as far back as the 1890s - re-bound and preserved.

And it was Lessard, in 2006, who ushered in a new computer system to streamline financial record-keeping in the clerk's office.

That's partly why Lessard will be so tough to replace, Town Moderator Chuck Morse said. She has done so much to make the office more efficient that it will be difficult to top her performance, he said.

"The job has grown so much, she's leaving big shoes that have to be filled," he said.

Town clerks are responsible for everything from dog licenses to car registrations to marriage licenses to running clean elections. And according to many who worked with her, Lessard was successful in large part because she was so meticulous and detail-oriented.

A former tax examiner for the Internal Revenue Service, Lessard acknowledged that the more systematic side of her personality has helped her as clerk.

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