2011-11-17 / News

How Jamestown works: The three women in the clerk’s office

BY KEN SHANE

The Jamestown clerk’s office has a big job to do, and major responsibility to go along with it. It is the clerk’s office that is responsible, by statute, for keeping all of the town’s records, including those documents that define the town itself.

The town clerk is Cheryl Fernstrom, who has been on the job since March 2010. Fernstrom grew up in Warwick, and attended the public schools there. Before taking the job in Jamestown, she was the town clerk in Exeter for 18 years.

The clerk’s office staff consists of three people. In addition to Fernstrom, there is Karen Montoya and Heather Lopes – Montoya is clerk for the board of canvassers, and Lopes is the probate clerk.

According to Fernstrom, “This office is charged with maintaining all of the records of the town.” That means recording, filing and retrieving of the records for interested parties. The town seal is also kept in the clerk’s office, along with vital records like birth, death and marriage documents.

It is the responsibility of the clerk’s office to keep those records confidential, and to make sure that they are sent to the state of Rhode Island. All of the town’s land evidence is in the office too. The land evidence is maintained in books, on microfilm (kept off-site), and in computers. Along with the record keeping comes the responsibility of keeping the vault that houses them safe and secure.

It is in the clerk’s office that the agendas and associated documents are prepared for all meetings of the Town Council. The agendas must be posted at various locations as well as on the town’s website, and the secretary of state’s website as required under the Open Meetings Act.

Licenses are also a part of the clerk’s responsibility. Dogs are licensed by the clerk’s office, as are local businesses. And each year in November the relicensing of establishments selling and serving alcohol takes place.

“That’s a big process,” Fernstrom said. “Every year we start in August by sending the packets out to all the liquor licensees, which they return to us and we process.” That effort includes getting all of the necessary signatures from the police department, the fire department, and the building and zoning department, making sure that each licensee is in compliance with laws and regulations.

A certificate of good standing from the state’s Division of Taxation is also required, as is a similar confirmation from the town’s tax collector. The deadline for this annual process is Nov. 30. There are currently a total of 12 liquor licenses held by Jamestown businesses. These include the island’s two liquor stores, the town’s restaurants, and one held by the Conanicut Yacht Club.

According to Fernstrom, the biggest challenge in her job is keeping informative and accurate minutes that become the permanent record of every council meeting. “The record of any council action taken at a public meeting is still the written word in the form of minutes,” she said. “The electronic format or any recording is only auxiliary. So your minutes have to be accurate to reflect what has actually taken place.”

The clerk’s office is a key component of any election, be it local, state or federal. All local candidates must file their papers at the clerk’s office. All nominating petitions are checked by the board of canvassers and if the required number of signatures are present and unchallenged, the candidate is certified and they are then given a copy of the town’s voter list to help them with their campaign.

“We prepare a warrant which we post,” Fernstrom said. “It states that an election will take place. It gives them time, place and location for each voting district. It’s in compliance with state law, and it lists who is running for what office. If there is a party designation it so notes, and if there is a referendum issue that will also be on the warrant.” The document is posted at various locations around town including Town Hall, the library and the police department.

When it comes to any election held in Jamestown, a key figure is Montoya. Montoya was born in Chicago, and as part of a military family, she moved around a lot. She arrived in Jamestown in 1993. Montoya ran a bed and breakfast here and in 1998 she took a parttime job with the board of canvassers that allowed her to maintain her business.

Montoya, who no longer has the bed and breakfast, has served in her dual role as deputy town clerk and board of canvassers’ clerk for two years. Some of her responsibilities for the board of canvassers include taking all new registrations, maintaining and updating the voter list, running a change of address program every two years that purges the voter list of people who no longer live in Jamestown, or have died.

When election time rolls around, it is Montoya who coordinates and trains all of the poll workers, and ensures that all state laws are adhered to, and all deadlines and reporting requirements are met. In addition, she works with the polling places to make sure that everything goes smoothly on Election Day. Once the election is over, it is Montoya’s responsibility to organize the results and see to it that they are delivered to the state.

In her job as deputy clerk, Montoya is responsible for land evidence recording, and assisting the public with questions about the documents that are kept in the vault such as survey maps and some of the old books and other records. “I’ve been doing the vault for 13 years, so I know it pretty well,” Montoya said.

According to Montoya, the biggest challenges facing her in the job are trying to keep up with all of the rules and deadlines that come from the state. “The state is very good about calendars and helping us out,” Montoya said. “But next year there will probably be 100 different dates that I will have to refer to for different deadlines for candidates declaring, nomination papers, party endorsements, objections, withdrawals. The list just goes on and on.”

Montoya wants people to know that the town’s website has just been updated with all of the information for the presidential preference primary that takes place on April 24. This includes information for potential delegates, and voter registration and absentee ballot forms. “One of the most important things we have is that for next year we have the initiation of the voter ID,” Montoya said.

The new law requires voters to present identification in order to vote. Acceptable forms of identifi- cation are listed on the town website. While some non-photo IDs will be accepted for the next two years, beginning in 2014 a photo ID will be required.

The third member of the clerk’s team, Heather Lopes, takes care of probate court matters for the office. She is also responsible for managing the town’s various committees, and licensing issues.

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