Are City/Town Clerks Essential Workers?
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.
City and Town Clerks perform many roles - elections, motor vehicle registrations, vital records, dog licensing, and collecting municipal fees just to name a few.
The City and Town Clerks’ most important role is elections. City and Town Clerks work with their Moderator and Checklist Supervisors to pull together the elections, including voter registrations. In this process, a City/Town Clerk must keep up to date with all of the legislation that has been passed since the last election. The 2020 elections brought us a weekly Governor’s update of Emergency Orders. Each Emergency Order had to be reviewed and processed as to how it affected what we do.
2020 was quite the busy year with four elections and a pandemic. Planning for the final two elections of the year was incredibly challenging. Most of the city and town halls were closed to walk in traffic and the schools as well. Moderators and Clerks had to figure out how to get together with all the necessary election officials to determine where elections were going to be held in order to be able to meet the spacing and health requirements. The year required out-of-the box thinking to meet requirements like how to place booths six feet apart with limited space. Much of this planning took place behind the scenes, but then there were the challenges that the public experienced as well - long waits on the telephone or long lines in town hall to fill out absentee ballot requests. Town/City Clerks and their staff were on the front lines for all of this. Some City and Town Clerks were receiving more than one hundred calls a day in addition to having to register voters in person.
With all of this happening, we were not considered essential. I cannot imagine if one of us just said we are not going to do this and closed up shop. We must process election requirements in the office - it cannot be done at home. Therefore, we must be considered essential workers.
Another very important role is in the Vital Record Department. City/Town Clerks are the only ones other than the Secretary of State’s office that can produce a birth certificate, death certificate, marriage certificate or divorce certificate. The need for these documents did not stop because of COVID - if not there was more of a need for many reasons.
Vital Records also includes Marriage Licenses. In 2020 there were so many marriages that were canceled due to facilities shutting down or venues requiring much smaller parties. Couples were scrambling on a daily basis to meet the new requirements and changing all their plans along the way. This was a very stressful time for many couples. All of their plans have been changed, nothing is like what they thought it would be, and they are just trying to find a City or Town Clerk to complete a Marriage License for them. At times this was a difficult thing for them to do. These were situations that no one could have ever imagined. Again, the City and Town Clerks needed to be there to meet these couples in person to get the marriage licenses completed. Couples were scrambling calling many town halls trying to get through so they could get an appointment.
Then there are towns that have birth facilities in those towns - in those cases, the Town Clerk must see the baby in person in order to complete the birth certificate. During COVID many couples decided to have their babies at home or at one of these facilities. The City/Town Clerk had to be available to make an appointment with the parent for them to bring the baby in to complete the birth certificate, another vital/essential job that must be done.
There were some cities and towns that decided not to do vital records which actually created a strain on neighboring towns. This could have been addressed if City and Town Clerks had been considered essential workers.
Another role that many Town Clerks have is that of a Municipal Agent. Municipal Agents register all trucks, cars, trailers, boats and any other vehicle that is principally garaged in their city or town. This requirement to keep motor vehicles registered did not go away during COVID. Individuals and companies needed their vehicles registered and renewed. Motor Vehicle registrations are the only way Towns get any substantial revenues other than from property tax. There were essential workers that needed to get to their jobs therefore, needed their vehicles registered. In the larger towns the town clerk must be open for business every day in order to get those vehicles registered or renewed. There is no working from home for City and Town Clerks; they must be in the office.
All City and Town Clerks also manage the dog registrations in Town. All dogs must be registered to prove they have had their rabies shots. It is a very important task required by the state legislature.
It is always a busy day in the Clerk’s Office. It is important to note that the Town Clerk position is the oldest public servant position on record. Town Clerks have played an essential role since 1272 A.D. For so many reasons Town Clerks need to support each other as there are times when there is no one else that is there to support them. City and Town Clerks are required to follow legislation but also need to propose legislation to make their jobs easier. Some changes need to happen and Town Clerks need to be more aggressive with creating these changes, accepting these changes, and making things happen.
There are certain activities that are absolutely essential for a society to function. Elections are integral to a functioning government. Vital records are needed to track important events in our citizens’ lives. Registrations are needed to ensure our cities and towns are safe and maintained. With so many of these activities managed by City/Town Clerks, who do not have the ability to process these functions at home, City/Town Clerks must be considered essential.
By Joan Dargie, Town Clerk, Milford