BRATTLEBORO—Town Clerk Annette Cappy said that for her, becoming a town clerk was kismet.
“It clicked for me,” said Cappy.
When Brattleboro hired her “cold” to the position, “I don’t think I had a clue what I was getting into when I took this job,” she said.
Twenty-five years later, Cappy has built a local reputation as one of Vermont’s best town clerks.
The Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association formalized that reputation statewide by naming her Town Clerk of the Year, an award that Cappy received at the association’s annual meeting on Sept. 24.
Cappy calls receiving the peer-nominated award “a very sweet thing” and “very humbling,” noting that many of her peers work harder than she does and earn less pay.
Cappy said receiving the award surprised her, given that she has traditionally stood across the fence from the VMCTA on policy issues.
“It never entered my mind that I would be a recipient,” she said.
The VMCTA seeks nominations from the association’s members annually. A committee reviews the nominations and decides the winner. Cappy does not know who nominated her.
How may I help you?
Cappy views her role as town clerk as the keeper of records, like birth and death certificates, administrator of elections, and representative of the town. People new to town often make the town clerk’s office their first stop, said Cappy.
The office receives “all sorts of questions,” she said.
People have called asking what shots they need to travel to Russia. A man called to ask about birth certificates, but asked if Cappy was the “birth controller.”
One gentleman called looking for Archer, Vermont. After Cappy replied that she didn’t think the town existed, the man said he was looking for “The Mayor of Archer.” (She figured out the confusion: Newfane mystery author Archer Mayor, who sets his mysteries in and around Brattleboro and Windham County.)
“Marriage licenses are interesting,” said Cappy.
Brattleboro is a popular marriage destination, said Cappy. It’s the first exit off Interstate 91, and Vermont’s marriage laws are more lenient than those in other states.
Vermont doesn’t require a waiting period, is less expensive, and does not ask for identification. The state operates on trust, Cappy says.
Consequently, many couples get married and within hours want an annulment, said Cappy, who attributes the quick attitude change to people seeking “instant gratification and then reality sinking in.”
Cappy said her office also receives one or two calls a year inquiring about specific marriage certificates.
On occasion, Cappy tells the caller that, yes, the person in question was married in Brattleboro, and the caller says, “Huh — because he’s still married to me.”
The only information the town clerk’s office has is the information that the couple provides on their marriage license worksheet, said Cappy.
The couple certifies that they’re each telling the truth about previous marriages, she said — but if the people lie, they lie.
Opening at midnight
Cappy opened her office at midnight on July 1, 2000, to issue one of the first civil union certificates in Vermont, to Carolyn Conrad and Kathleen Peterson.
Although Vermont’s civil unions law went into effect July 1, the date happened to fall during the long Independence Day holiday weekend.
“Now [the couples] have to wait because it’s a holiday weekend,” said Cappy. But at the time the law passed, she felt that couples, after waiting for decades, shouldn’t have to wait through a holiday weekend as well.
So when a same-sex couple asked Cappy to issue their civil union license after hours, she agreed.
Cappy said the appointment information leaked to the press. The town received threats from anti–civil union activists and religious groups like the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kans.
WBC notoriously maintains a website “God Hates Fags” and multiple sister sites like “God Hates Islam,” “God Hates the Media,” and “God Hates the World.” According to its website, WBC has conducted 49,014 demonstrations “opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth.”
Cappy and her husband met the couple downtown discreetly. Looking like nothing other than a group of friends out on the town, the Cappys walked with the women and two male friends to the Municipal Center.
Brattleboro Police Department placed officers around town. Officers herded members of the press to the town offices’ back parking lot, while another police officer met the Cappys, the couple, and their friends on the front steps.
The press was allowed to witness Cappy issue the license once officers and the town attorney deemed the situation safe, she said.
The couple held their ceremony across the street from the Municipal Center by the Wells Fountain. Cappy said she still has the bride’s bouquet.
Cappy said that many of the couples who came into her office seeking civil union licenses had been in their relationships for 30 or 40 years.
The memory of one such couple, John and his partner — both in their mid-70s, she estimates — has stayed with her.
After she issued their license, Cappy said, John held her hand. “You’ll never know what this means to me,” he told her.
“We just hugged hard,” said Cappy.
John, who lived in New Jersey, brought Cappy an anniversary cake every year for about four years.
“It’s probably the most wonderful experience of doing this job,” said Cappy.
On the other side of the marriage license coin was a woman, later identified as Maria-Helena Knoller, who helped arrange green-card marriages.
According to a news story from Stephen Kurkjian and Callum Borchers of the Northeastern University Initiative for Investigative Reporting, Knoller accompanied 22 couples to obtain marriage licenses in Brattleboro.
Cappy said the woman she knew only as “Maria” would invariably accompany a bride, always a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, and a groom, always a citizen of Brazil.
“You issue enough marriage licenses, and you get a sense of the couple,” said Cappy, suspicious that the women and men with Knoller did not act like people in love.
She eventually called the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (formerly INS), alerting the federal government numerous times, according to Kurkjian and Borchers. Knoller stopped coming to Cappy’s office.
In 2011, Cappy said one of the two reporters researching the story called her office and told her that immigration officials had caught Knoller, who then pleaded guilty to arranging fake marriages.
According to the piece, clients paid Knoller up to $12,000 to arrange the marriage, with the spouses receiving about half the money. The couple would remain married just long enough for the illegal partner to receive a provisional green card.
The town clerk’s office hires extra election staff, runs test ballots, and maintain the voting lists. Elections challenge and reward Cappy.
The three-month planning, deadlines, and dotting all i’s and crossing all t’s on the election laws that precedes elections is “stressful,” said Cappy.
When the process has gone well, she said, she has a sense of accomplishment.
Cappy said her office encourages early voting. Still, processing and tracking 2,000 to 3,000 early ballots generates mounds of paperwork for the office.
Cappy, who described voter turnout as low statewide, thinks apathy has set in for many voters who feel that their votes make no difference, that they’re voting only for the lesser of two evils, or that they don’t have the time to educate themselves on the candidates.
Even though more voters turn out for presidential elections than for local elections, said Cappy, the Selectboard is in a greater position to make changes in people’s daily lives than the president is.
Cappy said she often votes later in the day by using the phone provided for people with disabilities that feeds a person’s votes to the Secretary of State’s office. This way, she said, it’s more difficult for someone to identify which voter cast a specific vote.
Only 900 Brattleboro residents voted in the election of March 2001. But there was a reason for the low turnout — two feet of snow had fallen the night before Town Meeting Day in one of the biggest March blizzards in years.
While other towns postponed their voting, Cappy made it to Brattleboro Union High School on her own to run the voting booths. Although Brattleboro had power, Cappy recalled that other town clerks counted ballots by kerosene lamps.
More tech, same amounts of paper
The role of town clerk has not changed much in her 25 years, said Cappy.
Technology has changed the most. In her early days, Cappy said, the office had one computer that only alphabetized the voter registration list.
All the new tech has not saved on paper, said Cappy.
Laws have changed, becoming more complex, especially in the arena of elections, she said, adding that the debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential election spurred numerous reforms.
After the election, President George W. Bush enacted the Federal Election Assistance Commission (FEAC). The Vermont Secretary of State appointed Cappy as a local representative for the EAC standards board where, she said, she observed that Vermont outpaced other states in election laws and practices.
Cappy does not foresee Vermont eliminating paper ballots. Election officials can use the ballots to reconstruct votes in the event of a recount.
Lose the paper, and the state loses its record, she cautioned.
“We could go back and reconstruct the entire day if we had to,” she said.
Cappy has no plans to leave her job as Brattleboro’s town clerk anytime soon and said that in 25 years, she has never faced a day when she didn’t want to go to work.