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Boston City Council weighs ordinance on City Hall marriages

Posted by Roy Greene  February 13, 2012 05:12 PM

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City councilors took up the volatile combo platter of marriage and money as they discussed an ordinance requiring city officials who perform marriages during the workday to be paid through the government.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilor Michael Ross and Council President Stephen J. Murphy, seeks to prevent employees who perform marriages at City Hall from earning a second income.

In practical terms, the measure seems directed at the post of city clerk, a job that pays about $102,000 a year but includes the potential to collect tens of thousands of dollars more officiating at weddings during the workday at City Hall.

Under current policy, a couple must pay $50 at City Hall for a marriage certificate. The marriage must then be "solemnized" by a member of the clergy, a justice of the peace, or a friend or family member. City Clerk Maureen Feeney, considered a justice of the peace, can solemnize marriages.

“A lot of people get their marriages solemnized upstairs [by the city clerk],” said Terry Babin, who issues marriage certificates at City Hall. “It’s a lot cheaper that way. When couples go somewhere else to get their marriage solemnized, it can cost more than $100.”

In addition to being cheaper, some couples find that having their marriage solemnized in City Hall is easier.

Patricia Finnigan, who works in the city clerk’s office, said that “people apply for their marriage license downstairs, come up here, pay [the clerk] $60, and they’re done 15 minutes later.”

“Right now, clerks take the money” paid during the solemnizing process, said Councilor Michael Ross. “We don’t have a mechanism that allows [the city] to take that money.”

The council agreed that current policy should change, but disagreed on the specifics.

“We don’t want to stop having marriages in City Hall,” Ross said, “but we don’t want Vegas-style chapels popping up all over the city, either.”

While Boston taxpayers may be affected by a change in marriage solemnizing policy, many couples won’t be.

David Trudrung and William O’Neil, who are getting married on Feb. 16, said their wedding will be officiated by a justice of the peace.

“She’ll perform the ceremony for us in our hotel, sign our marriage certificate, and then we’ll bring it back here [to City Hall] and make copies,” Trudrung said. “We found her on-line in a list of about a dozen justices of the peace.”

Trudrung said it was worth paying the extra money to have their marriage outside of City Hall.

“I watched videos of ceremonies she’d performed, and they made me cry, so I knew she was good,’ he said, smiling.

Councilor Bill Linehan said in the council meeting that focusing on the money wastes time.

“This is really a moral issue,” Linehan said. “We have to find a balance between people having a right to the building and this conflict of interest with the clerk getting paid by both the people and the city.”

Ross noted: “This is the kind of law that has been on the books for so long, without anyone really questioning it. We need to question it. No clerk wants reform, but we need it.”

Ross, whose campaign website lists “promoting transparency and accountability in local government” as one of his key issues, ended the meeting by agreeing to meet with city clerks to come to a “gentleman’s agreement” about the best way to proceed.

Eleven city officials and five civilians attended the meeting. The city clerk was not present.

“We did reach out to a number of town clerks,” said Councilor Matt O’Malley, “but they were unable to attend.”

No date was set for a follow-up meeting.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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