Tradition makes a stand in Marblehead

Town Clerk Robin Michaud’s name is not on the May 9 Marblehead election ballot but Michaud won a resounding vote of confidence at Monday’s Town Meeting when participants voted 389-166 to defeat a petition to make the clerk’s job an appointed rather than an elected post.

If the vote had gone the other way, appointment proponents would have had to jump through several hoops during the next two years before the clerk’s job became an appointed position. The petition dominated Monday night’s Town Meeting debate with Michaud speaking against it. She simultaneously exerted her independence and demonstrated her popularity by urging Town Meeting to view an elected clerk as a Marblehead tradition. She also warned that an appointed clerk could face pressure from town elected officials, notably the Board of Selectmen.

The chief proponent for an appointed clerk made what almost has to be viewed as a dig at Michaud when he suggested appointment, rather than election, could make the clerk’s office run more efficiently.

Marblehead’s neighboring towns appoint clerks, in the case of Swampscott, Lynnfield and Saugus where the town manager is the appointing authority. Nahant just elected its clerk, the popular Margaret Barile, but the emphasis on appointment offers an insight into the clerk’s role from one community to another.

If there is one job in town government that is most closely identified with an individual’s personality, it is town clerk.

Clerks are the face of town government: They help people fill out and file birth and death certificates and, in towns such as Nahant, they preside over the annual rite of summer better known as beach permit renewal.

Clerks also preside over elections in many towns and that role can and does bring them into conflict with elected officials. It’s been a long time since a North Shore clerk stood up and said elected officials were attempting to exercise undue influence on the clerk’s office. But clerks know exactly what is going on in town government. They know who is feuding, who is looking to get someone a job and who is saying something different from what they are doing.

It is interesting — if not a little amusing — to note that Marblehead Town Meeting members voted by secret ballot on the appointment question. Imagine more than 500 people lining up with pencils and pieces of paper to make a decision that could have been affirmed with a show of hands.

A Lynnfield Town Meeting member had the nerve to propose a secret ballot vote on the controversial rail trail proposed for that town. The idea went down in flames and the resulting vote gave trail proponents a one-vote victory.

Marblehead’s secret ballot saw residents strike down the appointed Town Clerk proposal by more than a two-to-one margin. It confirmed what Michaud must have known before Town Meeting started on Monday: She is a popular town official who is viewed as efficient and hard-working and independent.

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