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Jim Kenyon: No Clerk in Windsor

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, July 28, 2018

There’s no town officer who interacts more with the public than the town clerk. She — they’re almost always women — issues dog licenses, registers voters and records property deeds, among other things.

So who better to judge the quality of a town clerk’s work than the public?

Judging by the fact that Windsor Town Clerk Sandy Micka has been voted into office seven times — the last six unopposed — I’d say that’s a pretty good indication that residents have been happy with the job she’s done for the last 18 years.

But Micka says there’s one resident whom she can’t seem to please — Town Manager Tom Marsh.

Micka, 56, recently announced that Aug. 16 will be her final day. In her July 18 resignation letter to Selectboard Chairman Rich Thomas, Micka wrote that Marsh has “succeeded in bullying me out of my job.”

Marsh, who came to Windsor in 2011, didn’t respect that she was an elected official who — unlike town department heads — didn’t have to answer to him, Micka told me. Marsh found other ways to exercise his authority over her, Micka said. Although she was elected, Micka — like many town clerks in Vermont — had little control over her department’s budget, including her salary and the number of hours the assistant town clerk could work.

Marsh once told her that he could force her out because “he controlled the purse strings,” Micka wrote in her resignation letter. “He was right.”

Last November, Micka sent an email to Marsh, seeking a $3,000 pay increase that would raise her annual salary to nearly $50,000 in 2018, which would place her close to the median salary for U.S. town clerks. While the “Selectboard obviously has the final say,” Micka should not expect her pay to “change significantly,” Marsh responded.

In Vermont, the relationship between elected town clerks and town managers, who are appointed by selectboards to oversee daily operations, can often be a tug of war, said Montpelier attorney Charlie Merriman, who represented Micka in salary discussions with the town.

Town managers tend to “think they’re a CEO running a company,” Merriman told me. “But it’s not a company, it’s a municipality.”

As elected officials, town clerks are supposed to be afforded a certain amount of autonomy. “It’s not up to the town manager or the selectboard” to set the town clerk’s office hours or pick her assistant, said South Burlington City Clerk Donna Kinville, president of the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association.

But in Windsor, Marsh’s predecessor, Steve Cottrell, decided in 2010 to close the town offices on Fridays, cutting Micka’s hours to 35 a week and the corresponding pay. Marsh has kept it that way. Last year, Micka was allowed to hire Kate Williams as her assistant, but Marsh limited her to 10 hours a week.

Micka brought in Williams with the intent of training her to become her replacement — voters willing. It’s a common practice in Vermont. Micka, herself, spent a few years learning the ropes from Town Clerk Gloria Tansey before she retired.

After about six months on the job, however, Williams resigned in late March. “Unfortunately, the atmosphere in your workspace is too oppressive; I believe it would affect my health to even attempt to step in your shoes,” Williams wrote in her resignation letter to Micka. “You have no support from management or the Selectboard.”

At a Selectboard meeting in January, Merriman argued that Micka was a target of gender bias in pay. The Selectboard took no action.

“I really think it’s a male-female issue,” Micka told me.

Windsor’s town government certainly has a boys club feel. Along with Marsh, the police chief, fire chief, recreation director, assessor and town attorney are men. Four of the five Selectboard members are male as well.

In her resignation letter, Micka pointed to the pay inequities inside Windsor’s town offices. According to Micka’s research, Marsh, the police chief and recreation director had received annual salary increases that averaged 5.5 percent or more between 2011 and 2017. Micka and Town Treasurer Debra Ouelette averaged raises of less than 1 percent. In 2017, Micka and Ouelette earned, $46,402 and $44,283 respectively. Marsh was paid $115,901.

Earlier this summer, the town and Micka brought in a mediator to see if they could resolve their differences. “Clearly, no satisfaction was reached” in the one session, Marsh told me on Friday.

I asked Marsh about the issues that Micka had brought up in her resignation letter. He politely declined to comment, mentioning that both sides had agreed in the mediation session to keep matters confidential.

Micka isn’t sure what she’ll do next for work.

“I feel like I’m letting people in Windsor down,” said Micka, who was a single mom with three children when she started at the town clerk’s office in 1997. “If I had the money, I’d keep fighting, but I don’t. Plus, I’m getting tired of this.”

In many communities, the town clerk is the face of town government. At the moment, Windsor seems a bit of a sad face.

 

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.