ENFIELD, N.Y. — A public hearing will be held to discuss turning the elected offices of highway superintendent and town clerk into appointed positions.

The Enfield Town Board held a special meeting June 30 to discuss the proposed changes to the highway superintendent and town clerk positions, which were initially introduced at the end of April. Current town clerk Ellen Woods began her tenure in January, and Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins has been in his position for over 10 years. Before the board can formally decide to include these proposed laws on the ballot for the public to vote on in November 2020 during the general election, a public hearing is required.

The hearing will take place July 22 at 6:30 p.m. Councilperson Virginia Bryant, Councilperson Mimi Mehaffey, Councilperson Stephanie Redmond and Town Supervisor Beth McGee voted in favor of moving the proposed laws forward to a public hearing. Councilperson Bob Lynch opposed the vote. 

There has been some public backlash to the proposed changes. Over 100 Enfield residents submitted a petition to the board asking for the right to vote on the next town supervisor and councilperson in the November 2020 general election rather than McGee appointing one should she resign, and that the positions of highway superintendent and town clerk remain elected positions.

“I think the petition we have tonight demonstrates full well there is a groundswell of opposition to any change,” Lynch said. “And this is not the time to do it. … I just don’t think we need this as a controversy in this town right now. Let’s go on what we have right now. We may have a change of supervisor later this year, and that will be enough disruption for us.”

In March, McGee announced that she was planning to resign from the board, set to take effect April 30. However, she has continued in her position, citing the need to ensure that the town is in a stable place following the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with the budget planning season approaching over the summer months. McGee’s term is set to expire in 2021. 

“I was elected to this position,” McGee said. “I will decide when and if I resign. There is great value in continuity of government. Those who understand the importance of that will appreciate, and maybe even give me a thank you for staying around and disrupting my life for even more months beyond the date that I had hoped to not be doing this anymore. … If people would like me to toss the town up in the air and you know, and just leave now, I guess I could do that. But that’s against my moral fiber. It is really to me, very irresponsible to just think that that’s the appropriate way to go forward. So I’m going to use my conscience and I’m going to stay in office until I feel that I can step away from this.”

Woods asked McGee why she believes that residents have the right to vote on whether these positions are appointed or elected, but they do not have the right to vote for who will serve as supervisor in 2021.

“The people of Enfield already voted who would serve as supervisor, and they’ve trusted me to do what’s best for the town as supervisor,” McGee responded. “If I am unable to complete that term, then my expectation is that they would trust me to also guide the town through a proper transition.”

Woods argued that changing the positions to appointments will require the town to raise the salary line. The Town of Ithaca is the only town in Tompkins County that appoints its town clerk and highway superintendent. The Town of Ithaca town clerk’s salary is $87,193.60, and Enfield’s is $20,000.

In April, McGee and Rollins faced disagreements regarding spending in the department and reimbursing highway workers while they were not completing work due to the pandemic.

“If [the highway department] is controlled by one person, that’s huge. It’s probably 70 percent of our budget of the town taxes,” Mehaffey said. “It feels to me that the town board and most of the budget is being hijacked by one person, and that’s scary to me. And that’s why I’m in favor of putting this on the ballot and letting the townspeople decide if that’s how they want their money decided to be spent by one person.”

According to the New York State Association of Towns, out of the 932 towns in the state, approximately 90% of town clerks and highway superintendents are elected rather than appointed.

In Tompkins County, Ulysses and Caroline have made efforts to abolish these elected positions as well. Similar to McGee’s reasoning, the boards have suggested that the positions are apolitical and thus should not be voted on, and that appointments can ensure that individuals with appropriate qualifications will be put into the positions. McGee said that under the current system, anyone without appropriate experience can run as long as they are over 18 and are an Enfield resident.

“I think it’s important for the residents to have a voice in how our town is run and that the five of us don’t choose whether or not these are appointed or elected positions,” Redmond said. “That is something for the residents to all be able to weigh in on.”

Redmond questioned why Lynch was against holding a public hearing on these proposed changes.

“Frankly, I think we’re forcing this on people because of personality disputes between the town board, some members of the town board and these two elected officers,” Lynch said.

McGee withdrew her other proposals to terminate Woods’ and Rollins’ positions at the end of this year and to increase the supervisor’s tenure from two to four years. Lynch also withdrew his proposal to lengthen the town clerk and highway superintendent tenures from two years to four, following McGee’s withdrawals.

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.