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Towns consider change for clerks

Officials may end ballot tradition

Ballots in towns across the western suburbs and the state have shrunk over the years, as communities that once elected treasurers, tax collectors, and highway directors now trust select boards or town councils to hire people for those positions. But in most communities, at least one full-time, salaried position remains elected: town clerk.

For some area towns, that, too, could change.

"The trend is to go to an appointed position," said Paul Cheli, the chairman of a charter review committee in Franklin. The committee is studying whether to remove the clerk position, along with treasurer/tax collector and members of the board of assessors, from the electoral process.

Cheli said his committee is divided on the issue, but he is firmly in favor of making the change. He said Deborah L. Pellegri, the current town clerk, is "wonderful," but he doubts whether anyone else in town is qualified to fill her shoes when she retires.

"The bar is set so high that I think the only way you could effectively keep those services is to recruit from another community in the commonwealth," Cheli said. "Unless you've been a town clerk before, how are you going to get that expertise?"

Town and city clerks are responsible for running elections and maintaining such vital records as birth and death certificates. Some, such as Cheli, argue that the position is too important to leave up to a "popularity contest." Others, such as elected Holliston Town Clerk Jacqueline Dellicker, say elections are necessary to ensure that clerks are independent of other boards.

According to the Massachusetts Town Clerks' Association, there were 254 elected town and city clerks across the state in the period from 2005 to 2006, the most recent years for which data are available. Seventy-nine clerks were appointed, and 18 appointed and elected clerks were tenured, meaning their term does not expire.

In Norfolk, selectmen have said they will attempt to switch the town clerk's position from an elected one to an appointed one. Town Administrator Jack Hathaway said the change, which requires approval at town meeting and on the ballot, would bring the position in line with the rest of the town's organizational structure.

"We don't want some employees having to live under a certain set of rules and others having to live under a separate set of rules," Hathaway said.

Elected town clerks are responsible only to the voters, Hathaway said. He said that former Town Clerk Marie Chiofolo, who recently left to take an appointed position in Stoughton, did "a wonderful job." Still, some town employees complained to him that Chiofolo took too much time off work.

"I think Marie did an excellent job, but there's the opportunity for someone to abuse that," Hathaway said.

Chiofolo began working in Stoughton on July 2, but she submitted her resignation from Norfolk effective July 27, meaning the town had to pay her during the interval between the dates. Selectman Ramesh Advani questioned why she was being paid while working in another town, but Hathaway said she could have opted to stay on the town's payroll until the next election.

"Once you're elected, as long as you don't break state law, you continue to stay in that office," he said.

Chiofolo defended her tenure, saying she often came in during her days off in Norfolk and continued to work on projects for the town during her first month in Stoughton. Still, she acknowledged that the lack of oversight could be abused.

"Being elected certainly does offer the person freedom," she said. "Let's face it, I could have stayed home every day. But if you want to be reelected, you have to do a good job."

Shrewsbury changed its policy in 2004, but not its person. When elected Town Clerk Ann M. Dagle's term ended in 2006 , selectmen reappointed her. Dagle said she supported the shift to an appointed position.

"I saw no disadvantage," she said. "For me personally, there was no change whatsoever."

Dan Morgado, Shrewsbury's town manager, said "virtually everybody" in town government was once elected, but the clerk's position outlasted the rest of the full-time posts.

"Every community will go at its own pace," Morgado said. "Every community has its own traditions and ways of doing business. There's no one-size-fits-all."