Q&A: Westport's top record keeper speaks for the record
The position of town clerk is one of the mainstays of American local government. Practically every community has one, and most citizens in any given place have probably dealt with this official either directly or indirectly.
But what exactly does a town clerk do, and how does this work affect you?
Westport Town Clerk Patricia Strauss, 56, has served in the position for 12 years. Here, she files some thoughts about being the town's key record keeper.
Q: What are your main roles and responsibilities as town clerk?
A: I feel that I have four different major areas of responsibilities as the town clerk.
I record all of the land record documents. That means I am responsible for all of the transfers of property, all of the mortgages and the liens. If you own land or property in the town of Westport, it's definitely coming through my office.
I maintain all of the vital records, meaning birth, death and marriages. Those records start at 1835 when the town incorporated. I have 175 years of records to maintain, to keep in good shape and accessible.
We have genealogists that come in and are hunting down their family trees, and they [the records] have to be there and ready to be observed and researched.
I'm also the clerk to the RTM. I think of it that I'm a clerk to 36 people in maintaining their records, their minutes and their agendas. Right now, deer management and P&Z ruling are topics of interest, so I have to maintain the records for those town meeting people.
The fourth area is statutory responsibility at the state level. During the election cycle, I am responsible for preparing the ballots, all of the legal notices and legal requirements for running an election. All of the nominated petitioning candidates must be certified through this office. And for the next 30 days, we are issuing and maintaining all the records of everyone who votes by absentee ballot.
Q: With which town departments and people do you work most closely?
A: We immediately need to work with the Assessor's Office and the Tax Collector's Office to keep their records current. People file and record here [the Town Clerk's Office], but it doesn't stop there. It must go directly to those two offices.
We also share our information with the Registrar of Voters office quickly, so they can keep their records up to date. We know when people move out of town, when people die, so the registrars can keep the voter lists current.
Q: When are the busiest times of year for your office?
A: April is the hunting licensing month, and fishing season starts in April. People come in the office, and they're looking for their hunting and fishing licenses.
And in spring, people buy and sell houses. When you hear that real estate is a spring market, guess who's the end of the line for that -- the Town Clerk's Office.
Then June comes, and that's dog licensing month. We license about 2,400 to 2,600 dogs in those 30 days.
We have rushes all through the year that we're gearing up for. Right now, in October, it's election season, and we're focusing on accounting for every voter in town, making sure they're allowed to vote, and making sure their absentee ballot is counted properly.
Q: What education or training is required to be a town clerk?
A: The nice thing about becoming a town clerk is that we have a wonderful association, the Connecticut Town Clerks Association that provides classes that people like me and the people in my office can attend.
I am a certified Connecticut town clerk, which means that I've passed enough classes and taken a test. I became accredited in two-and-a-half years, as it's a two-and-a-half year program.
There's also a master municipal certification -- it's an international certification -- and I'm working toward that degree.
Q: What relationship do you have with other town clerks in Connecticut?
A: I am the second vice president within the Connecticut Town Clerks Association. That means I'm the second in line to be president of the association, which means I'm in charge of all the town clerks across the state.
I find that the town clerks across the state are the best source for me to go to when I have a question about my job. I really use the in-state network of the other 168 town clerks.
Q: Are there any great creative works inspired by town clerks?
A: Yes, this poem, "The Clerk of the Town," was written by a member of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association in 1978:
"If they want to get married, or fish in the sea,
If they vote by machine, or they vote absentee,
Whatever their problem turns out to be,
It's the work of the Clerk of the Town.
We're concerned with such things
As the sex of a dog,
And how many babies arrive,
And we file, we record, we attach and attest,
Anything be it dead or alive.
Whatever goes on in the Town we record,
And often we do it with little reward,
We often go crazy, but never get bored,
Oh, it's great to be Clerk of the Town."