Canton town board takes drubbing from public over interim clerk appointment
BY ADAM ATKINSON
North Country This Week
CANTON — The Canton town board took a grilling from members of the public over their appointment of former board member Karin Blackburn to the position of interim clerk.
At one point, as many as 72 people attended the Thursday, Dec. 31 meeting where the board made the appointment. That number includes town board members and officials.Prior to the appointment, town residents in attendance criticized the board’s decision to appoint Blackburn over current Deputy Clerk Heidi Smith, who retiring clerk Lisa Hammond recommended for the post.
Hammond is leaving a year early from her current elected term. The political appointment of an interim clerk to serve out the remainder of a vacant term (Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2021) is solely a town board decision. Both Smith and Blackburn interviewed for the position on Dec. 17, said Town Supervisor Mary Ann Ashley. The supervisor said state law indicates that the board can not take action on an appointment until the vacancy exists. Hammond’s last official day was Dec. 30. Blackburn resigned from her town board seat Dec. 21.
Town Councilman Tim Danehy explained the board’s decision to choose Blackburn to serve in the clerk’s position for 2021. He also addressed public criticism leveled at the board for the choice.
“One thing that has never been in doubt is that they (board members) are motivated by anything other than doing what is best for the town of Canton,” Danehy said. “We don’t get a lot of easy wins,” Danehy said. “Usually it's a balancing act. . . We always try to find that balance. We always try to do the right thing. Those decisions can be really tough when it comes down to personnel with multiple, qualified candidates, that’s going to be really tough.”
Danehy said 12 years ago the board then faced the same situation over whether to appoint the deputy clerk with 10 years of experience to finish a vacated term for the town clerk position. That board opted to select a different candidate instead, in this case Lisa Hammond, who went on to serve out the remainder of the vacant term, but also won several subsequent elections for the post.
Danehy refuted claims that the town board was appointing Blackburn to the post for their own personal gain.
“I’ve had a number of friends, long time friends, questioning my integrity and there are several that haven’t bothered to question it, they have just gone ahead and gone out of their way to tell me I don’t have any,” Danehy said. “So if anybody can tell me how it's benefitting me on a personal level, I would love to know.”
“My decision is in no way a rebuke of Heidi Smith. Heidi is a valued member of our staff. She has proven that,” said Town Councilman Bob Washo. “While she does exhibit on-the-job experience, on-the-job experience is not the only consideration when fulfilling a search.
“Karin Blackburn, on the other hand, offered broad work experience and an accomplished resume that was difficult to match. With a background in informational technology, personnel and human resources, budgeting and operational management, Karin has demonstrated the necessary skill set to move the clerk’s office forward in an ever changing work environment. These skills are too good to pass up.”
Washo said Blackburn is not an unknown to town residents, and was elected by 1,000 votes to the town board.
He also added that the board followed the law in making the appointment “at every step of the way during this process.”
Town resident Mary Dolan asked the board what the job requirements were for the clerk’s position and what competencies the board was looking for in the specific questions posed to each of the two candidates who applied, Blackburn and Smith.
The town attorney advised the board not to go into too much detail about the two candidates due to privacy issues related to personnel. The attorney said the appointment is a board decision based on factors that are not public. Dolan countered asking what the basic job requirements are for the post.
Washo said candidates for the post merely have to be a town resident and be 18 years old.
“Were there any specific competencies sought for this position?” said Dolan.
“It was an extensive interview. And the same questions were asked of both candidates,” Washo said.
“I’m just quite befuddled that Heidi Smith with her experience in that office was not given a better chance at being the town clerk,” said town taxpayer Janet Robert. “She has been doing this in that office for quite a number of years, right? . . . I think she deserved a better chance at that position, and I’m sure that I’m not the only person in the town that feels that way.”
“Heidi Smith is my sister, so I may be biased in saying this, but I think you guys have passed over a very hard worker, a person the community has grown to love, somebody who is very personable. And it's really unfortunate,” said Heather Newcombe of Rensselaer Falls. “And having spoken with her and I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this, I don’t think you gave her a good enough reason as to why she was passed over on this.”
“It’s clear that with the answers we are getting, that we are not going to get the answers we would like,” Newcombe said. “I would just like to remind the public that in 2021 we have a say.”
“I would like everyone on this call to know that the board clearly doesn’t care what the community wants or needs,” said Mark Smith, Heidi Smith’s husband. “They are putting someone (Blackburn) into this position that has absolutely no experience and when she walks into the office on Jan. 4 without being a registrar, without being licensed to sell hunting and fishing licenses, or marriage certificates or death certificates, this town is really at an disadvantage.”
“And all I’ve heard so far is basically people trying to cover their butts to get re-elected and I think it's ridiculous,” Mark Smith said. “If you really cared what the community and what was best for the town of Canton, you would put someone in that office who has the experience to run it on a day-to-day basis.”
Smith said the “only way to fix this” is to encourage people to run for the seat and other town positions next fall. “Because it is time for a change, clearly,” he said.
Town resident Lyne Soulia questioned why the vacancy for the final year of the clerk’s position was not more widely advertised to draw candidates. Danehy answered that the board is under no obligation to post for the vacancy, and that the candidates that did apply were interviewed.
“Not that I want to apply, but if I did want to apply, how would I have known that I could?” said Soulia. Ashley said she could have contacted the board.
“But how would I have known to contact the board?” Soulia said.
Washo said he appreciates Soulia’s frustration with the process, pointing out that it is the same process that was used in 2008 when Hammond was first appointed. “That’s unfortunately how political appointments work,” Washo said. Washo said the process for finding a replacement for when an elected official leaves early is different than a standard appointment or hire. “Political appointments are just that, political appointments. I don’t care for the system that’s in place, but that’s the system, that’s the law,” Washo said. “Those are the guardrails that we have to operate under.”
“I think what is discussed is what gets at the heart of what makes a lot of people uncomfortable, which is that somebody who was being groomed for promotion into that position and someone who was on the board making the decision about that position were the two people considered. And I think there is a fear of bias that someone who was on the board was appointed by the board to be in that position,” said Katie Dolan. “I think this a good opportunity for the board to assuage fears that bias was a part of that decision.”
“I think it's an absolute disgrace that she has been overlooked and the way that she has been,” Town taxpayer Renee Lomoglio said, after praising Heidi Smith’s community involvement. “And I hope that when it comes time for people to be elected that a lot of people are looking at this. . . to shove somebody in there that has no experience. It’s very shady, and people see that in the community.”
“I urge everybody when it's time to get to vote to change this,” Lomoglio said.
“It's unfortunate that the recommendation of the outgoing town clerk, that has trained Heidi Smith and has lots of experience in that office, is being overlooked,” said Brandon Kelly of Rensselaer Falls. “If you so, in fact, started this in the middle of December, and then the next week a town board member resigns and is appointed to that position, I question how ethical that is as well.”
Canton resident Kathryn Liscum, who earlier this week penned a letter directed to the town supervisor regarding the situation, was also critical of the board, saying that the process was not “transparent.”
“The public did not know that this was happening, that there were interviews, that they could potentially put their name in and have this position. Who knows what potential people we could of had (to show) interest in this,” Liscum said.
“The public thought that our deputy town clerk, with her year’s of experience in that office every day, was to be appointed to the interim position,” said Liscum. She criticized the idea that the public could know about the opening by contacting the board, especially in light of how the public’s contact with the municipal building may have been limited by COVID-19 closures. “You (the board) ultimately have the decision to choose, and you chose someone without experience, that is your decision as town board members, that is your responsibility,” said Liscum. “The people of Canton do not deserve this.”
Other comments leveled at the board in the Zoom chat interface were equally scathing.
“‘Concerning’ and ‘shady’ are two great words to describe what is happening here,” wrote Kathryn O’Connell.
“If short notice was a deciding factor, the candidate with the most direct experience just makes sense,” wrote Jen Brown.
“Just like the rec department, it is obvious Canton is going downhill,” wrote O’Connell.
Heather Newcombe wrote, “Thank you Lisa Hammond for your service. Apologies if you feel the lack of information that was given to the public by the town board overshadowed your hard work and dedication. I also apologize that your recommendation was ignored.”
“Don’t forget to vote, community, to right the wrong that was made today. Heidi, you will have our votes!” wrote Renee Lomoglio.
Sometime after the meeting, the town supervisor released an official statement announcing the board’s decision. The press release highlighted Blackburn’s experience and qualifications.
According to the press release, Blackburn, who lives in Rensselaer Falls, is currently serving as director of human resources and administrative operations for the Health WorkForce New York, Inc. in Canton and director of Northern Area Health Education Center, Inc. in Canton.
From 2000-2017, Blackburn served as secretary II at the St. Lawrence University donor relations department, chief clerk in the Office of Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs, confidential I secretary in the human resources office and confidential II assistant at the Office of the Vice President of the University and Dean of Academic Affairs at St. Lawrence University, the press release from the town said.
For the past eight years, the new interim clerk has volunteered as a scene support firefighter, secretary, grant writer, and event planner in the Rensselaer Falls Fire Department, said the press release.
She was elected town council member in January 2020 serving on the audit committee, information and technology committee, recreation committee; shared services committee, economic development committee and health insurance committee.