Wednesday night’s Zoom-only debate between the candidates for Greenwich Town Clerk was organized by the League of Women Voters.
The moderators were Sandy Waters, president LWV Greenwich, and JoAnn Messina, past president LWV Greenwich.
It was the last in the LWV series of candidate debates this election season.
Previously they hosted debates for Selectmen candidates, BOE candidates and BET candidates.
The town clerk candidates were Republican Jackie Budkins (incumbent) and Democratic challenger Lucy von Brachel.
Ms Budkins talked about her priority to increase accessibility to public records.
“What I plan to do is really an extension of what I’ve installed already in our office and all the new technology we’ve put in. I am currently also working on a project with the First Selectman’s office and SNAC where we’re going to have one main central portal that will host all our our boards, commissions and RTM members’ information and terms.”
Budkins said it was being finalized and had just received approval from the town’s cyber security team, and that she expected it to be up and running in about two months.
Her other priority was to continue streamlining the RTM process.
“Moving forward there are ways to improve on the process in terms of getting agenda items to the office and such, and we will keep increasing the use of our voting technology that we’re using on RTM.”
Ms von Brachel said land records should be digitized faster.
“I know we get a state grant every year, which is wonderful, but I do believe there are grants elsewhere for municipal records we could use to expedite there,” she said. “You end up having more time freed up for staff to help people with other things.”
von Brachel said she’d like the website to be reconfigured so people have a better understanding of the department’s services.
“I don’t think a lot of people know what the town clerk’s office does,” she said. “Making sure people understand the office. I think there are some clever ways the office profile could be raised, like taking some of these historic records we have that go back to 1640 and telling stories about them on social media or on our website.”
Town Clerk as RTM Secretary
Given the town clerk serves as secretary to the RTM, there was a question about contacting RTM members and accessing their voting history, as well as whether RTM members should use a town email address exclusively?
Ms Budkins said she was aware it has not always easy to contact individual RTM members, but that the “230-contact all” option has recently been well used.
“I do think that emails should be easily accessible to the public. I think it should be easily accessible to click on a button and email your representative in your district. With this new portal we’re putting up for boards, commissions and the RTM, it would be a link that goes to the RTM webpage. Through there, the hopes are that someone will be able to just click and email their representative directly.”
Budkins stated she believed every elected RTM member should have a town email because they are elected officials.
Ms von Brachel, who has served on RTM for six years, said she felt strongly that Greenwich elected officials, especially on the RTM, should be responsive the communities they live in.
Describing the RTM as “a little insular,” she said it should be easier to email RTM membrs.
She said when she started, there was a separate website for that RTM, with everyone’s phone numbers, addresses and email addresses.
“It was very easy to contact people individually,” she said.
“When the town moved to its new website, that information was hidden away, making it a little harder for people to contact their reps. In lieu of that direct access, they put ‘contact us’ links on each page for every every committee and every district. The part that is problematic is that each page on the town website has to be managed by someone who is part of that page.”
von Brachel said when she was on the Land Use committee she was responsible for keeping the website up to date for that committee, but the system was not effective.
“In some districts you can email everyone, some districts you can only email the chair. It’s a little inconsistent.”
“Because there is turnover on the RTM, with two-year turns, keeping people up-to-date on that training has been challenging. It is not an easy back-end to use.”
Further, she said some people did want town email addresses, which had advantages including for Freedom of Information Act issues, which have been a challenge for RTM members using their private emails.
“We were told at the time that it was not cost effective to add 230 emails, especially with all that turnover, and having to provide support to all those members is challenging as well,” von Brachel added. “And I think you have a lot of people who would have a hard time accessing those emails, given the cyber security the town uses.”
Still, she said it was important to address the challenge.
“While we do have this all-230 member RTM email and we have started receiving a lot more feedback from the public which is fantastic, sometimes I do enjoy getting emails from the honors civics class at the high school when they have an assignment about issues in their neighborhood. I would like people to be able to contact me and ask me questions.”
She said she felt it was very important to have RTM members’ voting records readily accessible, especially considering the RTM is having many competitive races.
“At the moment it takes a lot of clicks,” she said. “I have given tutorials to many people trying to find that information. It should be much easier to look up.”
“I think that is really the only way to hold RTM members accountable values. When you have 30 people on the ballot for 23 slots you want to know who you are voting for,” von Brachel said. “It’s important to understand who is representing you and whether or not they represent your values.”
Making it Easier to Interact with the Town Clerk Office
Ms Budkins said there had been a lot of positive feedback on the Real Property Fraud Alert system.
She noted that in the town of Fairfield someone purchased someone else’s land and built a home without the actual owner being aware.
“With this,someone can sign up easily for free on our search website and access notifications by their name, their address, however they like it. And it’s pretty instantaneous.”
“So when records are recorded in our office, they are uploaded, digitized almost immediately,” she said. “When the person is leaving, the staff is already scanning them. We are back to1927. We are constantly working on them, and it’s an ongoing project.
“We have a company that we have hired over the years, and they’re terrific at taking time to make sure everything is up and installed correctly is really a priority.”
Ms von Brachel said there were services available through the town clerk’s office, but there needed to be more instructions.
“The fraud alert system I was aware of, but I haven’t seen anything pushed out to the public about that. it’s hard for people to know what services are available.”
Further she said any services that could be put online would be great, and there was a lack of consistency.
“I think we could work on making things more consistent and be a model for the rest of the town,” she said.
She added there should be more fill-able forms so that people didn’t have to print out forms and fill them out and mail them in.
“We can make it a little bit easier,” she said.
Ms Budkins said her office had also incorporated e-recording, which involves submitting land records electronically, and has been a great resource for customers like banks and attorneys.
“When it comes to the website and adding technology, we all have to go through a process with our It Department. We have a strict cyber security team. And Everything we put up has to be reviewed,” she said. “We want to make it as accessible for everyone and have the most friendly online service as we can.”
Ms von Brachel said she’d heard while campaigning that the dog licensing process was prohibitive, and that other towns had created online systems, though there are state statutes limiting the timing for renewals.
Budkins said when she last campaigned she had emphasized offering dog licenses online, and when she was elected she had spent time researching the process.
But she said just as her office was ready to move ahead, the state said they would be taking over dog licensing.
From there, she said, “The town clerks got together and put together a committee, and were discussing it, and we’ve almost come to the point where now they (the state) are not going to be taking it over,” Budkins explained. “Now we are able to move forward on going online. But there was no point in spending town funds or town time when the state was taking it over.”
Now, she said she believed the town clerks had agreed that each town needed to manage their own dog licenses.
“People come in at the last minute – they’re traveling, the need their dog licenses right then and there – They’re not going to go to Hartford or mail it in.”
Budkins said she’d like to make dog licenses available online, but dog owners still needed to come pick up the actual tags or have them mailed out.
“A lot of people, especially with service dogs, they like to come into the office to get their tags. They have their special numbers and want to be the first person in line,” she said. “Being able to purchase online will be great…As soon as the state says they’re not moving forward, we can make it accessible.”
She explained that while June was dog license renewal month, and it was a busy time n her office, people renew throughout the year, or get new dogs throughout the year.
“I think we’ve done about 3,000 this year,” she said.
Ms von Brachel agreed if the state was not going to step up, there needed to be changes.
“Because of the statutes and how limiting it is – currently there is a one month period to renew licenses, it’s just not convenient,” she said.
She said she’d researched the data and learned there were only about 2,500 dog licenses issued annually in Greenwich.
“Having been knocking on doors lately, I can say that at least 8 out of 10 houses have at least one dog. We need to be licensing more, and to do that it has to be a lot easier.”
“I think it is unfortunate that the staff has to spend so much time dealing with the licensing by hand,” she said.
In her closing statement, Ms Budkins said she had accomplished a great deal in her first term as town clerk.
“We have introduced real property fraud alert notification service, which is free to the public. We have added a new, more user-friendly online land record search system,” she continued.
“We have implemented electronic recording as an additional source of land records. We rolled out the new RTM remote and Easy Vote voting system. We’ve added an additional platform for the public to request and pay for vital records.”
But, she added, “I’m not done there. I’m running for a second term to build on those accomplishments to make our office the most welcoming and user-friendly place possible.”
Budkins said she wanted to streamline RTM processes and put in place the new online portal that organizes and tracks all boards, commissions and RTM members’ information and terms.
In her closing statement, von Brachel recalled that she was a three-year-old when her mother prepared to move her and her sister to Greenwich. In preparing for the move her mother had contacted Community Answers, which she described as like “a Greenwich-based Google, but with people on either end of the phone line.”
“They helped her find childcare, a place to live and a job really quickly,” she said. “That was obviously a huge relief to our family, and to be embraced by a community with such a strong support system was remarkable.”
She said her own family story informed her dedication to public service, and that when she returned to Greenwich with her own family, she volunteered at Community Answers, putting her research skills to use.
“I learned a lot about the town – from how to dispose of roadkill to where to find support services for homeless teens,” von Brachel said. “It meant a lot to me.”
She added that similarly, the town clerk served a diverse community, providing easy access to information and services that make a difference in people’s lives.
“The town clerk’s office has been in the same family for 32 years, and that is a legacy that is truly something to be proud of, but I believe it is time for a fresh perspective and new approaches.”
LWV Greenwich is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan organization. It does not support or oppose any individual candidate for public office. LWV Greenwich debates are designed to help voters understand candidates’ positions on the issues and are conducted in a bipartisan manner, giving all eligible candidates a fair opportunity to share their views.