What does a town clerk do?
It’s a question with no easy answer.
They issue all sorts of licenses and permits. They maintain vital records. They notarize signatures. They respond to open-records requests. They run municipal meetings and take minutes. Some perform marriages. And they’re usually the first face you see when you enter your town hall.
With few exceptions, these elected officials have continued to perform nearly all of these functions as the world around them continues to change in unexpected ways.
“I’m sitting here in my living room, but we’re doing everything that we’ve normally done,” said Lisbeth “Boo” Fumagalli, town clerk of Bedford. “I’m right in the middle of sending an email to a resident who needs a handicap permit. We’re going to send him the permit and then he can send us the paperwork. We’re not going to hold him up. So, that’s how we’ve been handling a lot of things.”
Most offices in this area are modestly sized, rarely exceeding four people—including the clerk. Though the public is rarely allowed into municipal buildings these days, most clerks’ offices are still being staffed.
“We adapted by meeting [constituents] outside,” said Diana Quast, town clerk of Yorktown. “We do all the same business.”
One of the few functions that can’t be performed digitally is notarizing signatures. Patricia Kalba, town clerk of Somers, is doing them by appointment only.
“I pick a day I’m going to be [at the Somers Town House] and for how many hours,” Kalba said. “Then I’ll go into the parking lot and I’ll notarize your documents. I’m still working at home on some days.”
Residents can also still purchase an E-ZPass from their clerks.
“I’ve been selling E-ZPasses out the back door,” said Janet Donohue, town clerk of Lewisboro. “I tell people to bring exact change or a credit card number.”
Fumagalli has taken an inventive approach to selling E-ZPasses without coming into contact with her constituents.
“People will call us, they’ll give their credit card information,” Bedford’s town clerk said. “We have a mailbox right outside town hall. They’ll tell us when they’re coming; we’ll put the E-ZPass in there.”
Maria Hlushko, town clerk for the small town of North Salem, said residents being barred from town buildings is the biggest change for her office. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.
“I go out with a mask and gloves with a clipboard and pen that have been wiped down,” Hlushko said. “I do marriage licenses in the parking lot.”
TAKING IT ONLINE
Some towns were more equipped than others to transition to a mostly digital world. Some towns, for example, manage records electronically while others keep paper records in boxes. Some have online payment systems while some only accept cash. But for the most part, handicap permits, dog licenses and even death certificates can now be issued without having to come to town hall. In Yorktown, the clerk’s office will even come to you.
Because of Yorktown’s mobile clerk’s office, “I think it was a little bit easier for us to transition and work remotely,” Quast said.
“We were already moving forward and doing a lot more things electronically and online.”
The pandemic has given town clerks another skill to add to their resumes: “Proficient in Zoom.” The videoconferencing app, which has seen its popularity and stock price surge since March, has hosted nearly all municipal board meetings—with only a few hiccups.
“The first couple were tricky, and we got Zoom-bombed one time when we didn’t have a password cover on it,” Donohue said, referring to an unwanted digital intrusion into the Town Board’s meeting. “We learned to make all of our meetings password-protected.”
Though worried at first about how it would work, some clerks now say they prefer using Zoom instead of meeting in person.
“Nobody wants to give up Zoom. We all love it,” Fumagalli said. “I really don’t think we’ve skipped a beat. I think people were a little frightened at first, especially with zoning and planning [boards] with these huge plans, but it’s really worked out. We’ve done bid openings on Zoom. That has worked out absolutely fine.”
Once-rigid meetings have taken on an entirely different atmosphere, Fumagalli said.
“It’s not as formal. People are more at ease. There is better interaction with people, and I think that’s really good,” Fumagalli said. But despite its success, nothing can replace human interaction. “I really miss the people. I miss the interaction with people and seeing people, and that’s been very, very tough.”
In Yorktown, Quast’s home office looks more like a control room. She hosts the meetings on a tablet; uses a laptop to search and review information and uses a desktop to monitor the cable feed.
“If you add two cellphones onto that with texts and emails, it’s an interesting time,” Quast said.
A town board meeting agenda can have a dozen or more items with as many guests scheduled to speak. When guests arrive to the Zoom meeting, Quast will send them into a virtual waiting room until it’s their time on the agenda. Residents can also still have their voices heard during the public comment portion of the meeting.
In some ways, the clerks said, the pandemic has resulted in a more engaged public. Donohue said the most recent Lewisboro
Town Board meeting had 41 participants—far exceeding the usual Monday evening crowd at town hall.
In Bedford, Fumagalli said her office has dealt with a record number of open-records requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
“FOIL requests have gone through the roof,” Fumagalli said. “People have been sitting at home thinking. It has just been unbelievable. We’ve been very busy. I really feel good about the fact that we really haven’t missed a beat.”
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Marriages have also increased during the pandemic, with Quast estimating her Yorktown office has performed twice as many as usual.
“We had a woman from Canada who called to get married,” Quast said.
The preliminary paperwork is done without the couple coming to the office.
“We take a blank marriage license and we scan it to the couple,” Fumagalli said. “We have them fill it in and they send us all of their documents.”
When the big day comes, the couple is asked to bring all of their original documents with them to town hall.
“We meet in the lobby of the court,” Fumagalli said. “They sit on one side [of the bench], I sit on the other side with my mask on.
They sign the marriage license, I sign it, seal it, and then we’re done.”
Quast’s office has performed marriages in the back of town hall and at nearby Patriot Park. She said she tries to make the day as special as possible for the couple.
“They had to cancel all of their [wedding] plans,” Quast said. “We just felt that being here for them was the most important thing that we can do.”
Fumagalli and Quast have also performed weddings on Zoom.
“The first one was really great,” Fumagalli said. “There must have been 30 to 40 people on, and really it was a lot of fun.”
In order to get married, even on Zoom, both parties are required to physically be in New York. Right now, Fumagalli is trying to get a special waiver from the state for a bride who is stuck in Germany while the groom is in Bedford Hills.
“They would really like to get married on a specific date because it has meaning to them and their family,” Fumagalli said.
MORE THAN A ‘CLERK’
Lewisboro’s town clerk almost also got stuck overseas. In early March, Donohue was in Vienna, Italy, visiting her daughter, who was studying abroad. She switched her flight and arrived in New York at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, mere hours before international travel was halted. Donohue was then quarantined for two weeks.
Since then, Donohue and her deputy have been coming into the office a few days a week, splitting mornings and afternoons.
“Phones have been covered, emails have been covered, and people are pretty surprised that we get right back to them,”
Donohue said. “Town clerks, that’s what we do. We make it work.”
When she’s not in the office, Somers’ town clerk said she’s had her office calls forwarded to her cellphone.
“I’ve basically done things the most traditional way I can possibly do them,” Kalba said.
Quast and her staff have even traveled to residents’ homes, delivering everything from permits to masks to absentee ballots.
Quast also performs checks on some of Yorktown’s senior residents “so they don’t feel alone,” she said.
“All town clerks are about their residents,” Quast said. “They’re out there to help people, and that’s one goal we have in common.”
A NEW NORMAL
North Salem’s clerk said residents were more cautious about the disease at first, but lately more and more have ventured out and to her office.
“It’s slowly getting back to normal,” Hlushko said. “In the past week it’s definitely picked up. It’s like people are coming out of the woodwork.”
Many months down the line, when this pandemic ends, the clerks are unsure what “normal” will look like. But many said they will begin to integrate some of their new practices.
“I think it will give us all a realization that we can work remotely if we have to, and that was something that was kind of always frowned upon. I don’t think it will be any longer,” Fumagalli said. “Things we thought were not possible to do anywhere else but the office can be done outside the office.”
She and Donohue, though, both said they miss the public dearly. Lewisboro’s town clerk said she enjoys chatting with residents and sharing her knowledge about the town.
“When we open to the public, it may be by appointment only,” Donohue said. “I get it, but I don’t like it. This is their town house; they’re paying for it. So, I wish they could come in whenever they wanted to.”
When town halls do open, Plexiglas will likely separate their offices from their constituents.
“It’s just going to be kind of a new normal,” Donohue said.