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Councilor Wants to Strip Autonomy from City Clerk

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

 

It may have started with marriage fees, but one Worcester City Councilor has a much bigger beef with the city clerk. City Councilor Konstantina Lukes wants the city manager to directly supervise the clerk’s office. As it stands, City Clerk David Rushford reports to the council. 

“There’s nobody designated to oversee that office,” she said. “That’s my concern. Perhaps it should be under the city manager.”

While he doesn’t want to get into a back-and-forth over who should do what, Rushford suggested Lukes review the city charter.

“The councilor is not familiar enough with the charter to know the council has had control over the clerk since 1950,” he said. “She has admitted she does not come down [to the clerk’s office] at all.”

Transparency needed

Lukes said her push for more oversight stemmed from learning the city clerk and his assistant retained fees for performing civil marriages at City Hall during business hours. The council has since voted to prohibit that practice. 

“That’s what brought this to light, the way we were doing fees,” Lukes said. “It was the fact we have no oversight over there. I don’t think any of us really understands the extent to which that office is autonomous.”
The charter, she said, should be changed to “make sure somebody knows what’s going on.”

It is all about being transparent, Lukes said. 

Rushford said his door is rarely locked and transparency is not an issue. 

“The majority of the councilors I’ve worked with since 1980 have been satisfied (with his performance),” Rushford said. “We do $800,000 in revenue annually and it’s all accounted for.”

Lukes, he said, “is one of the very few councilors I’ve worked for who does not have any interest in being here and trying to understand the operation, but would prefer to criticize the clerk from a distance.”

Special Revenue Fund

Lukes certainly has been critical of the Marriage Counseling Special Revenue Fund, which rests with the treasurer and is comprised of $43,130 in donations made by people who have applied for marriage licenses. The city solicitor is in the process of determining just what to do with the money, which was accumulated during fiscal years 2007, 2008 and 2009. No deposits have been made into the account since then.

Lukes said there is a valid question as to whether the fund is legal.

“It’s not that it was nefarious,” she said. “But can the treasurer or any department head go around setting up new accounts?”

City Solicitor David Moore said he does not anticipate finishing a review of the fund immediately, but that he is examining many aspects, including whether the fund was established legally and what should be done with it.
Rushford said he started collecting donations after being approached by two area people who expressed concern over the lack of funding available for nonprofit marriage counseling. 

Tin can

Dr. Jan Yost, of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, and Rabbi Seth Bernstein, who was with the Congregation Beth Israel at the time, literally wanted to put a tin can on the clerk’s counter inside City Hall, Rushford said. 

Yost said she was aware of two area organizations – Jewish Family Service of Worcester Inc. and the Worcester Pastoral Council Center – offering marriage counseling to couples who could not afford traditional counseling. Both organizations were having difficulty paying for the services, she said, so together with Bernstein, she approached the city clerk about establishing a fund.

Her foundation, Yost said, would administer the money for the city, free of charge. Yost said she signed a memo with Rushford as to how the fund would be administered if it were put in place.

“We just thought of this as an opportunity to satisfy a need,” Yost said. “It seemed to me like a wonderful way for a community to care about its families.”

‘Foggy’ memory

Rushford eventually brought the proposal to the council. While it was initially tabled, the council ultimately offered its approval. At least that’s how Rushford remembers it. 

Lukes, who was among those who voted in favor, now says she doesn’t remember what the council voted on.

“Sure he came forward,” she said of the idea for a special marriage counseling fund. “It ended up being approved. But what did we approve? That’s why we referred it to the city solicitor.”

Asked why she would have voted on something she did not understand, Lukes said, “The institutional memory on this is foggy.”

Lukes said she wants the money returned to the original donors, and wants the solicitor to determine what the cost to the city would be for tracking down the names and mailing out refunds. 

Rushford said getting the names is easy – and free. 

“It’s all in a database,” he said. “Anyone can get it.”

He also wasn’t buying Lukes claim of memory loss.

“She knows exactly what she voted for,” Rushford said. “It sat in committee for two years as I advocated for it.”

He said he erred in collecting the donations before a fund was established.

“Did I jump the gun? Obviously, I did,” Rushford said. “But the funds were collected every day and deposited into an account.”

 

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