Not in the job description

Lincoln, Vermont Town Clerk Sally Ober is sitting behind her desk at the town office, smiling patiently, the phone pressed against her ear. The caller is Jeff Bercuvitz, a Lincoln taxpayer and a trainer and coach of community builders and leaders.

“A number of people have told me they’ve noticed a large increase in the number of commercial jet flights flying over Bristol Cliffs,” Jeff says. “Have you heard anything about a change in flight patterns at regional airports?”

Jeff’s concern is the compromising of the wilderness experience here in Lincoln. Sally can’t confirm whether there is indeed more air traffic overhead, only that — as far as she knows — Armageddon isn’t imminent. After the call, she shrugs and smiles. “The other day someone phoned wanting to know how to spell asbestos,” she says. “It’s all part of the job.”

Sally has been the town clerk since March 2006. She loves the work and, as she puts, it, “being connected to the community.” She lives with her husband and two daughters in the center of the village, barely one-hundred yards from the town office. (In addition, conscientious readers may also recall that Sally was the human mother to Sparkle the Wonder Duck and Griff the “Morning Edition” crooning dog.)

Right now is among the busiest times of the year for Sally: January and February, the months that precede that first Tuesday in March, when Vermonters in towns and villages across the state once more emerge from winter hibernation and revel in legislative self-determination.

January is marginally more chaotic than February because the deadlines for different elements of the printed Town Warning fall in the first month of the year: “Everything that goes through the report is funneled through me. I am the Grand Central Station for all of it.”

But February isn’t a cakewalk either, because this month she has to recruit her election workers, manage the absentee ballots, and organize the final logistics for town meeting — all while handling her usual day-to-day responsibilities.

Her office is across the street from my house, and I see the lights on at all hours. “This time of the year,” she says, “I sometimes wake up at three or four in the morning and just go to the office. The phone doesn’t ring and I get a lot of work done.”

And yet the parts of the job that Sally loves best often begin with a phone call, and often the Lincoln resident at the other end is calling about decidedly non-governmental business. “I hear from a lot of elderly people who call me for very basic needs. They don’t have power in a snowstorm and need hot water or they’ve driven their car off their driveway. And it may not be my job, but how can I not help them?”

Indeed, it is the human connection that means the most to Sally. Every year at Town Meeting, some taxpayers request that we vote on the school budget via Australian ballot. It is as certain as the sun rising in the East and Paris Hilton dressing like a tart in the West. And while the procedural logjam that accompanies a paper ballot might drive some clerks crazy, Sally savors the moment: “It gives people in line the chance to visit and informally chat about the meeting — and the issues. We moan and groan about the time the secret ballot takes, but people are seeing each other for the first time in months, in some cases, and it gives them the chance to talk. It’s a good thing.”

And in a small town, visiting counts. “The one thing I have learned about my job is that people want their clerk to be someone they can talk to. People come into the office with no business to do, but they will stay there for hours. And sometimes, it’s very personal. They share with me their marital problems. Their money problems. Their not-to-be-repeated problems. I hear it all. They tell no one but the town clerk.”

Therapist isn’t a part of the job description, but neither is spell-checker. Still, like most of Vermont’s town clerks, Sally does both — and relishes in the work.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on February 7, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.