When a town official stops working, what then?

When a town official stops working, what then?

Putney’s town clerk was elected in March — and by May, she stopped coming to work. Vermont offers few legal options short of waiting for her to resign, but a new state law might provide a workaround for a town in limbo.

PUTNEY — Can a municipality simultaneously have a town clerk and treasurer, but not have a town clerk and treasurer?

As town officials have learned, the answer is “yes.”

Denise Germon, Putney's town clerk and treasurer, has stopped showing up for work.

But the town still officially has someone filling those positions, because Germon hasn't resigned.

The ability of the Selectboard and the town's voters to do anything about it is limited.

And this isn't just true for Putney.

According to state statute, there is no mechanism for recalling an elected official, and the laws around filling a vacancy don't apply in this case. But, with the passage of Act 27 during the 2017 legislative session, the town may have some recourse.

Germon - whom The Commons was unable to reach for this story - was elected in March at Town Meeting for a three-year term.

But by May 26, according to Selectboard Clerk Josh Laughlin, Germon left “of her own volition.”

More than three months later, Germon hasn't indicated whether she will return or resign, Laughlin said. Selectboard members have “asked her to clarify her intentions.”

'She was doing a great job'

At the Aug. 30 regular Selectboard meeting, Assistant Treasurer Anita Coomes asked board members, and Interim Town Manager Chip Stearns, if they had any advance warning that Germon was abandoning her post. They said they did not.

Administrative Assistant Laura Barcomb assured Coomes that nobody in the town offices “thought Denise would not be able to do the town clerk work. In fact [...] we commented on the fact that she [was] doing a great job.”

“We all thought that she was going to assume that position and remain in that position,” Laughlin told Coomes.

Selectboard Chair Scott Henry added, “The complete lack of communication to any of us - whether it's to the town manager or the Selectboard or even the [town] offices - on Denise's part has been very hard on all of us. No one knows.”

“We are trying to keep the town functioning as well as it can and to keep the functions intact, but we're limited,” Laughlin said.

The challenge any selectboard in Vermont faces when dealing with a no-show town clerk or treasurer is that it has no authority over those elected officials.

“We don't have jurisdiction over that position, so there's only so much we can do,” Laughlin said.

“Local government in Vermont is so horizontally based with elected officials” that it limits how one officer can respond to another to ensure duties are completed, Stearns told The Commons.

The Selectboard experienced this issue of jurisdiction in the past few years when Coomes, then town clerk and treasurer, failed to file a number of documents with state and federal agencies, including payroll reports and tax forms. Nor did she deposit multiple years' worth of dog license payments.

This lapse went on for many years, but until Coomes's term was up, or unless she resigned, the job was hers.

The only way townspeople can recall an elected official is if that option “is written into a town or city charter. Otherwise, it is not in statute,” said Deputy Secretary of State Christopher D. Winters.

Putney has no town charter.

Town is left with few options

State statute offers specific reasons for filling a vacancy in an elected office: “When a town officer resigns his or her office, or has been removed therefrom, or dies, or becomes unable to perform his or her duties due to a mental condition or psychiatric disability, or removes from town, such office shall become vacant.”

“Under the law and under the facts as you have described them to me, it does not appear this is a vacancy and as an elected officer, the town has very few options for replacing an absent town clerk beyond the future ballot box,” Winters said.

But could Act 27 provide a solution?

In the 2017 session, the Legislature passed what might provide the town with a possible workaround.

The law, “An act relating to appointing municipal clerks and treasurers and to municipal audit penalties,” allows voters to change an elected position to one that is appointed by the Selectboard, giving board members and voters more latitude in removing a public servant from office.

This can happen during an elected official's term.

Under the law, “if the town votes at town meeting to allow for appointment by the Selectboard, 45 days after that vote, the clerk's term would expire,” Winters said.

'Not in our budget'

Until town officials and Town Attorney Lawrence Slason figure out what to do, they can at least stop issuing Germon paychecks for a job she isn't doing.

Laughlin confirmed the Selectboard decided to stop paying Germon once her accrued benefits were exhausted.

“It's not in our budget,” he said.

Assistant Town Clerk Barbara Taylor has run the office since Germon abandoned her post, Laughlin said. Coomes helped cover some of Germon's duties for a few months, as well. But, Laughlin said, “our budget couldn't support [Coomes filling in] indefinitely, so we asked Anita to reduce her hours.”

With Germon's departure, the town clerk office is open Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Despite the cutback, “we think the responsibilities of the town clerk and treasurer are being done efficiently enough at this time [by Taylor and Coomes] and they're doing a great job,” Laughlin said. “But we want a resolution.”

Both Stearns and Winters said this is the first time they have heard of an official abandoning their office without resigning.

In 28 years of working with municipal government in Vermont, “I haven't seen that,” Stearns said.

“After kicking this around the office for a bit today, no one has encountered a situation like this before where an elected town clerk is absent with no explanation and refuses to resign or provide any explanation,” Winters said.

“We are hopeful that an amicable and reasonable resolution comes from this,” Laughlin said.

“We would like Denise to have the opportunity to resolve this in a way that's satisfying for everybody. But,” he said, “we don't have a clear idea what that means.”

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