By Jonathan Phelps
---- — WENHAM — Since 1644, residents in Wenham have elected the town clerk. Now, selectmen are looking to change the post to an appointed one.
Selectman Molly Martins said the proposal came out of the Government Study Committee, a group appointed by selectmen in 2011 to study the town’s operations and look for ways to increase efficiency.
“I think the increase in complexity of municipal government requires us to look at this and make these changes,” she said.
The board is also recommending that the tree warden be changed from an elected to an appointed position.
Selectmen would have to approve the appointments. The town clerk is currently elected annually.
The study group recommended the change because both positions are responsible for delivering town services, rather than establishing policy, according to the group’s report. The tree warden is responsible for the care and control of all public shade trees and shrubs, except on state highways.
“Those seemed to be the two operational positions that are still elected,” Martins said. “As a matter of efficiency and operational management of the town, the board agreed with the government study.”
While the proposed changes appear on this year’s Town Meeting warrant, selectmen are planning to recommend a motion to postpone the move until a future meeting for further study and consideration, Martins said. The decision was made at a joint meeting with the Government Study Committee at the end of last week.
Such a change in town government would require a ballot-box vote, but it would have to wait until next year’s election.
“There was no need to rush,” Martins said. “It didn’t need to go before this Town Meeting.”
The town clerks in Hamilton and Marblehead are elected to three-year terms, while the clerks in Danvers, Ipswich and Swampscott are appointed.
Donna Hooper, Lexington’s town clerk and president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks’ Association, said there are 232 elected town clerks across the state and 78 appointed.
“It seems to be more and more of a consideration for towns as they look at their form of government,” she said of switching the clerk’s position from elected to appointed. “It doesn’t always get implemented.”
Wenham Town Clerk Trudy Reid, who has served for the past three years, said she does not support the proposal.
The town clerk’s office is responsible for preserving the legislative history of the town, maintaining public records, and conducting fair and impartial elections, she said.
“It is the oldest elected position in Massachusetts,” she said. “When the Pilgrims settled, the first thing they did was elect a town clerk to keep records.”
Reid said the town’s first clerk, Phineas Fiske, took office in 1644 — 10 years before the first selectman took office.
But Reid’s opposition goes beyond upholding tradition.
“State law requires elected officials to be residents of the community. An appointed town clerk does not have that same requirement,” she said. “A resident is going to more involved in the community and accountable to the voters.”
She said the town clerk is selected by hundreds of voters and not at the discretion of a three-member board or town administrator.
“An elected town clerk is perceived as being independent and abiding by state laws and regulations,” Reid wrote in a statement. “An elected clerk is a key element in maintaining checks and balances at the top level of local government, which involves conducting local and state elections, maintaining records on ethics, conflict of interest and Open Meeting Law guidelines.”
The town clerk is a position elected annually, but there is a citizen-petitioned article at Town Meeting to make it a three-year term. This is an article that Reid said she supports.
Reid said she is running unopposed for a fourth one-year term and is in a position to apply for the post if the Town Meeting article is passed.
Martins said the switch will give the town more flexibility to select candidates with experience and professional accreditation. She emphasized, however, that the proposed switch does not speak to the job performance of either the town clerk or tree warden.
“It is looking at those positions and seeing what is most efficient,” she said. “It will help us move forward.”
Annual Town Meeting starts at 1 p.m. Saturday at Buker School on School Street.
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.
TOWN CLERKS IN MASSACHUSETTS
Elected town clerks: 232
Appointed town clerks: 78
Elected city clerks: 6
Appointed city clerks: 33
Source: Massachusetts Town Clerks’ Association