Professional town jobs edge out volunteer leaders

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(Host) The fabric of community life in Vermont has been sustained for generations by the volunteers who step forward in every town to run for local office, or to serve on unpaid boards and commissions. In part three of our series on the public service jobs of Vermont, VPR’s Steve Delaney explores the civic duties that may not survive as elective offices.

(Delaney) Among the duties of the secretary of state in Vermont is the oversight of local government operations in more than 200 towns. Deborah Markowitz holds that job.

(Markowitz) “In local government we’ve got elected positions and we’ve got appointed positions. And in the elected positions there’s been a shift toward professionalizing and an interest in professionalism. And so there are some positions that in the larger communities are becoming obsolete because the towns need to hire professionals to perform those functions. And the example is the auditor, the Board of Auditors.”

(Barbara Oles) “I personally like the idea of a professional audit.”

(Delaney) Barbara Oles is the Town Clerk and Treasurer in Guilford.

(Oles) “When you’re dealing with the amount of revenues that come across your desk now as treasurer, I feel that it’s very important that somebody else that understands the financial package has a look at it besides me. I say that because the lay people do not understand. They understand, you know, finances, but they do not understand the whole complex part of municipal finance and government funding.”

(Delaney) The trend toward professionalism extends also to listers, the elected officials who assess the tax value of local properties. It is one of the hardest positions to fill, in many towns.

(Gilles) “You know, you can’t get anybody hardly any more to do listing in the towns. The listers have a job that it’s hard to keep up with the times of today.”

(Delaney) Selectman Gilles Rainville of Georgia.

(Gilles) “I think a lot of communities are going to have to make an arrangement for listers. That’s all people do for a living is to go town to town and do listing or find some sort of fair market value for what the state wants you to do.”

(Delaney) Barbara Oles does not believe listers are yet an endangered species in Guilford.

(Oles) “They are a valuable tool, I mean you need somebody to go out and do that. And it’s much better to have a local person come around visiting you, I think, than some stranger.”
(Delaney) “Has Guilford found it difficult to find people who will do it?”
(Oles) “No, we’ve been pretty fortunate. We’ve had one gentleman who’s been on there for a number of years, actually longer than I’ve been here. And the others come and go but they serve two or three terms, and then move on, so it hasn’t been too bad.”

(Delaney) Some of Vermont’s clerks and treasurers believe that while those jobs are usually held by the same person, there may come a time when the jobs not only are split among two people, but that the treasurer may also evolve to become most often an appointed professional, rather than an elected official.

Does the increasing level of professionalism in land assessment and money management mean a decrease in the interest Vermonters have always shown in serving their towns? Secretary of State Markowitz hopes not.

(Markowitz) “You know as there are fewer slots to run for, there may be more interest in those slots, so I’m not pessimistic about it. You know I think change is natural, and I do think we’ll see change. I don’t think we’re in danger of becoming ‘Un-Vermont.’ I think so much of our sense of identity is caught up in our sense of place, our sense of local government.”

(Delaney) Experts on local government say that even if the traditional second-tier offices are professionalized, there are, always and everywhere, opportunities on the select board, the school board and the clerk’s office, for Vermonters with a hankering to get their hands on the machinery of local government.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Delaney.

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