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Town Clerk’s Office Dynamic

A hotly contested race for North Hempstead Town Clerk between incumbent Leslie Gross and County Legislator Wayne Wink has left many town residents scratching their heads wondering exactly what it is that the town clerk does.  From pictures in local newspapers one might think that the job is one long photo opportunity. Leslie Goss, the North Hempstead Town Clerk since her appointment in 2007 and subsequent election, seems to be everywhere. Well, in reality she is and not just during campaign season. This reporter shadowed Ms. Gross for The Port Washington News for just one morning and was left breathless by the pace.

Starting with a Manhasset Chamber of Commerce breakfast at 7:30 a.m., then back to the office for paperwork, phone calls and e-mails, the morning was non-stop movement. At 10:30 a.m., it was over to Town Hall to open bids for the demolition of a building in Westbury. There are specific requirements with respect to issuing Requests for Information, Requests for Bids and then opening and recording the responses which are the responsibility of the clerk’s office.

At 11 a.m., it was back across the street to the clerk’s office to perform a marriage ceremony and then on to the Herrick’s Senior Center to provide information about upcoming events and obtain feedback on programs the town has initiated. All before noon.

Turns out the office of town clerk is a complex machine that Gross refers to as the “Front and back door of the town government.”  There are 16 full time employees to serve the 239,000 town residents. Perhaps the best way to understand all the hats the town clerk wears is to follow the money. The town clerk is responsible for four different budgets which reflect the basic responsibilities of the post: The Registrar’s Budget, the Town Clerk’s Budget, the Town Board’s Meeting and Administration Budget, and the Records Management Budget. Under each of these budgets fall the expenses of particular functions.

The clerk’s office is supposed to be non-political, serving all political parties equally. The person who holds the office has latitude in proposing projects such as new residents brochures, preserving local history by mobilizing public support and suggesting programs for development to the town council based on information obtained from the public.

The clerk is the official Registrar of Vital Statistics responsible for all official records for the town and its 19 independent villages. In this capacity the clerk’s office is also an official satellite of the New York State Department of Health.

Employees issue more than 6,000 birth certificates a year and an employee is available 24/7 to issue death certificates and authorize the transfer of bodies.

The town clerk is also a designated marriage officer which Gross says is the aspect of the job she most enjoys. In addition, the office issues state permits and licenses such as marriage, hunting and fishing, going out of business sales, dog, bingo and raffles. The clerk also issues town licenses including taxi, towing, peddlers and solid waste collection.

The clerk presides over all town board meetings and administration which includes expenses to run the meetings, public hearings and mailings, the expense of which can fluctuate dramatically depending on what is happening in the life of the town.

The clerk is the records management officer for the town which means that the office holder is the custodian of all town records and is responsible for the preservation of all documents and the protection of the archives, all of which are stored in locked rooms under a specially coded system.  Many are fragile and stored in climate controlled locked vaults.

Gross likes to think of the clerk’s office as the public face of the town. “Everyone comes through here at one point or another,” she says. “It is a conduit for receiving information from the public on what they need and want from the town and then feeding information back out.”

The clerk’s office operates within very specific guidelines outlining most functions and procedures. The clerk belongs to the New York State Town Clerk Association and attends seminars for continuing education sponsored by the association and Cornell University. Gross also believes that on going education for staff is critical.

What becomes clear as one spends time in the clerk’s office is that superior management and communication skills are necessary to manage four parallel lines of business simultaneously.

Although there are many specific responsibilities of the office, clearly the office holder also sets the tone of operation for many important functions dealing with the public and can have a voice in shaping the agenda of the town by providing input from across town districts.