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Municipal clerks' summer camp is no holiday

Long Island clerks along with other public officials

Long Island clerks along with other public officials from around the state take classes to help them to perform their jobs better at Cornell University in Ithaca. (July 17, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

ITHACA -- They looked nothing like the other students playfully tossing discs on the Ag Quad.

The group of municipal clerks -- and some leaders in education, government, the not-for-profit world, and the private sector -- wore business casual attire, pretending to be at a country club instead of in unforgiving heat on a Cornell University lawn.

The role-playing exercise Wednesday, in which some grappled with thorny subjects taking place in different pretend scenarios, was part of a grueling week for clerks and the leaders. They came for either the Cornell Municipal Clerks Institute, a five-day professional development program that can lead to advanced job certification, or inaugural Community Development Institute, or both. The Cornell program cost municipal governments or professional organizations $800, or $460 for commuters.

Clerks can attend for three or six years, respectively, to help earn a Certified or Master Municipal Clerk status from the International Institute of Municipal Clerks of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

The institutes are run by Cornell's Community and Regional Development Institute, which trains local government officials, and tailors training to the clerk role. Officials say it is a profession evolving as laws change and one where schooling or prior work experience is insufficient preparation.

"No one goes to higher education and comes out with a degree in municipal clerkdom," said Margaret O'Keefe, Head of the Harbor's village clerk, seeking a master's certification.

"We didn't wake up and say, 'I want to be a municipal clerk,' " said Liz Gaynor, clerk treasurer for Manorhaven Village.

The Community Development Institute, a two day-program, sprang up to meet training demands from local officials statewide, according to program leaders, who said both institutes drew a group of nearly 75 clerks and community leaders -- including 11 clerks from Long Island.

For those in the simulation, the role-playing was intended to resemble real-life experiences. There was talk of "hijacking agendas," influence-peddling -- one man promised "free sundaes at the farm" in exchange for support -- and spirited opposition.

"Some of the challenges that are faced in the simulations are exactly the challenges faced in real life," said simulation leader Lawrence Van De Valk. "Some organizations work together, play nice. Others are very divided."

Rod Howe, institute executive director, said the training supplies community leaders with the latest policy research from Cornell faculty. Courses reflect research in sharing services, demography and sustainability.

A chunk of the job deals with frustrated residents and budget preparations, clerks said, adding they appreciated lessons in customer service and software.

Gaynor, who completed her first stint at the institute, said she would consider changes back at the office, allowing residents to evaluate village services.

Constance Conroy, village clerk for Island Park, said she wanted to take advanced computer classes.

"Clerks, they're at a very interesting point in their communities where a lot of things happen," Howe said.

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