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Newfane Town Clerk Gloria Cristelli shows some town property maps at the Town Offices last year.

Town and Village

Indexing town records turns contentious

Amid confusion and contradictions, board authorizes town clerk to spend $1,200 for assistant to index newly scanned town records

NEWFANE—It took the Selectboard two meetings and just over 59 minutes to decide whether to authorize Town Clerk Gloria Cristelli to use $1,200 from a records restoration and preservation fund to restore and preserve the town’s public records.

In the end, the motion barely passed.

Since 2010, Cristelli and her assistant, Dedra Dunham, have been scanning and indexing the town’s land records [“Preserving history,” Town & Village, Dec. 16, 2015]. As Cristelli noted in that article, the state requires towns to have at least two copies of all public records. After the damage to many buildings during Tropical Storm Irene, the importance of redundancy became apparent.

The fund that would pay Dunham’s portion of this work — indexing public records — continues to get replenished every time a new record is entered: one dollar from the $10-per-page recording fee goes into the restoration and preservation fund. At the Feb. 1 Selectboard meeting, Cristelli estimated the fund contained $2,300.

The town has used that money to pay Ohio-based firm Cott Systems to scan the public records. Dunham’s job is to index those files.

Cristelli asked the board to release the funds to pay Dunham for the indexing work, which is separate from her tasks as assistant town clerk.

But there was some confusion from the board on whether the town was allowed to pay Dunham’s wages from this fund. Some board members asserted it was “illegal” to do so.

At the Feb. 1 meeting, Chairperson Todd Lawley and Board Member Carol Hatcher said the assistant secretary of state told them this fund cannot be used to pay anyone’s wages or salary. Cristelli disagreed, and said the funds could be spent on their intended purpose: to keep the town’s records safe.

Selectboard Administrative Assistant Shannon Meckle said two people claimed they got different answers on the matter from the same person.

Cristelli shared with the board emails from two area town clerks affirming they used money from the fund to pay staff to work on similar projects, and that State Archivist Tanya Marshall said the practice was not illegal.

Board member Dennis Wiswall asked his colleagues to explain why they believe it is acceptable to pay Cott to scan the documents, but it is not okay with them to pay a town employee to index them.

“It makes no sense,” he said.

Marion Dowling, who also serves on the board, asked, “If you can’t use [the restoration fund money] for wages, what can you use that money for?"

“Right now,” Cristelli said, “I can’t use it for anything."

Cristelli argued that without indexing the files, the digitizing work Cott performed was “worthless.” She also noted the indexes are needed for title searches.

“What are the consequences if we don’t do this?” Wiswall asked at the Feb. 22 board meeting.

If there is a fire or flood that compromises the town vault, Cristelli said, and the records and the index are destroyed, “they’re gone.”

“It is very, very clear I cannot use those funds without the approval of the Selectboard,” Cristelli told the board, and added she has never “snuck around” the board’s jurisdiction — for example, by asking the town treasurer to cut a check without the board’s authorization — to do so.

At the Feb. 22 board meeting, some members asked Cristelli repeatedly to estimate how long, and how much money, it will take for Dunham to complete the indexing project, although Cristelli repeatedly told them it was near-impossible to answer. Each record is unique, she said, and some are more complicated than others.

Some board members suggested Dunham limit her duties during certain hours of the workday to indexing and not performing other tasks required of an assistant town clerk. Cristelli assured them this was an unreasonable request, as there is no way to know when members of the public will arrive needing help.

Board members also went back and forth over whether Dunham should record, in 10-minute increments, her indexing tasks versus her assistant town clerk tasks.

“We’re beating this thing to death,” Wiswall said.

Although board member Mike Fitzpatrick appealed to his colleagues to not “do a patch” job on the records preservation and indexing, he and Todd Lawley voted against the motion.

Dowling, Hatcher, and Wiswall voted in favor, and the motion “to authorize $1,200 to be paid out of the Restoration of Records Fund for the sole purpose of indexing the land records” passed. Dunham will submit detailed time sheets separating time spent on her tasks.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #348 (Wednesday, March 16, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.

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