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Clerks head to camp for training

Ronnie Shatzkamer, village administrator for Flower Hill, is

Ronnie Shatzkamer, village administrator for Flower Hill, is attending weeklong training at the Cornell Municipal Clerks Institute in Ithaca. (July 11, 2013) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Ronnie Shatzkamer, village administrator for Flower Hill, faced another impassioned constituent.

This time, she tried something different: an approach from the Cornell Municipal Clerks Institute, which supplies colleagues with professional development training.

The technique, Shatzkamer said, was to "let them talk: they don't want a solution, they just want somebody to hear them."

And so she did.

"The real problem wasn't that her neighbor was parking five cars in the driveway, the real problem was she hates the neighbor." The woman walked out calmly, she recalled.

This week nearly 50 officials -- 10 from Long Island -- have descended on Cornell's campus in Ithaca for the weeklong training. For attending three or six years, the classes can help clerks earn Certified or Master Municipal Clerk status, respectively.

Village and town boards, or professional subsidies often foot the cost: $800, or $460 for commuters.The training comes as the job evolves. As files move from paper to electronic, unfunded mandates grow and definitions of marriage change, the clerk must keep up, officers say. Not just record-keepers, clerks say, but chiefs-of-staff, with firm grips on human resource rules and intermunicipal relations.

"You have to be a psychologist," observed Shatzkamer. "You have to be a negotiator. You have to be an arbitrator. "

As Leslie Gross, North Hempstead Town clerk and a six-time camper put it: "The clerk is the first line of government."

The classes have run the gamut, from "Youth as Assets" to "Ethics on the Edge."

"It truly does professionalize what it is they do. When people just hear the word 'clerk,' you picture somebody that's filing away paper," said Paula Younger, deputy county administrator for Tompkins County.

Though clerk is a job handsomely paid -- several make upward of $100,000 and hold or go by several titles such as treasurer, administrator, tax assessor, marriage officer -- leaders say the role is underappreciated.

In interviews, clerks said a swath of "unfunded mandates" from the state has changed the job; as has new technology and requests for documents.

"Clerks need to know how to save them properly and that they are secure."

Despite the trappings of college, there is hardly time for a dip in the gorges. Days are packed with seminars, breaks spent finishing assignments.

Christina Homrighouse, an institute lecturer, said clerks often arrive with poor but tamable work habits.

She says she treats the profession like the ones her year-round students seek, noting the institute "fills in the gap between what folks came in with and what they actually need to do their jobs.Some are "not comfortable with technology," said Homrighouse, who teaches classes in information managing and software: Excel, Access.

Some clerks, she said, rely too heavily on paper and have a limited mastery of Excel.

Some officials said they were inspired to start email blasts or assemble record databases. Southold Town Clerk Elizabeth Neville, an MMC, said she won a grant for a municipal database after taking grant-writing at Cornell. The system, which links various town records online, she said, prevents fraud and safeguards landmarked sites, by blocking bids to demolish those locations automatically.

Policy seminars have provided them a framework for stepping into Town Hall controversies.Leslie Gross, North Hempstead's Town Clerk, said when a microburst brought down trees in Great Neck three years ago, stirring conversations about construction work, she opened her notes, which cautioned against planting trees in certain streets.

"All of a sudden, I was referring back to my notes about trees," she said.

Joseph Scalero, Mineola's village clerk, said a case study about private and public partnerships can help refocus village talks, especially over development. "People fixate on what does the developer get, instead of what the village will get."

Clerks said they have revamped human resource practices -- Shatzkamer made performance evaluations.

But it may not be for everyone.Julie Kain, Williston Park's clerk, went in July 2010 but never returned. She said it focused more on "how to be a better manager, communicator . . . not a better village clerk."

"It wasn't helping me to do my job any better," she said.

The clerks arrive Sunday, with some staying in Mews Hall, a dormitory on Cornell's North Campus. The first class begins 7:45 Monday morning, and they will go till dusk

There is burn-out. "A lot of coffee," Shatzkamer advised.Scalero, sitting with fellow clerks earlier this month at a Roslyn diner, said he thought the program was "valuable." But "I'm not going back for the fun, though."

Snapshot of Class Descriptions:

"Ethics on The Edge": "Taking your organization and its core values beyond what is simply legal to higher level as to what is right and wrong, good and bad."

"Personal Well-being": "Causes of stress and a variety of ways to survive and thrive during harried and difficult times."

"Taking Sustainability Seriously in NYS":

"Learn about the strategies that local government leaders favor for sustainability."

SOURCE: Cornell University

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