The Town Clerk’s Office
By Ron Scopelliti
Walking through the front door at Smithfield Town Hall, the first office you’re likely to see is one of the building’s busiest – the Town Clerk’s Office. According to the department website, the office has six major divisions: Town Council Records, Land Records Registry, Board of Canvassers, Registry of Vital Statistics, Probate Court, and Business Licenses.
Putting it in those terms makes it sound cold and impersonal, but when you walk into the office you realize what it really is. It’s a place that lends order to our political system, as well as our business and land dealings. And more than that, it’s a place that touches residents’ lives at their most significant moments – birth, marriage, and death.
Town Clerk Carol Aquilante has been with the town for 32 years, and has seen her share of changes in the office. The new computer system they’re using for land evidence records, for instance, is a far cry from the record-keeping techniques that prevailed when she started.
“When I was hired on,” she recalls, “I had to take a penmanship test and a typing test.
“When you brought a deed in, we had to hand-write it into the receiving books.”
Working along with Aquilante are three full-time employees, a part-time employee who works 21 hours a week on permits, and a part-timer who works under the “75-day rule,” filling in when needed, covering vacations and stepping in during busy periods.
She says that there’s a cyclical aspect to the work at the office, and that people have different reasons for coming into the office based on the time of year. In February, for instance, people will start coming in for marriage licenses.
“In September,” Aquilante says, “they’ll start picking up a lot with vital statistics – a lot of birth certificates because parents are enrolling the kids in kindergarten.”
And when winter comes, there are more deaths to record, particularly in the elderly population.
In between, there are constant clerical tasks, such as sending out license renewals, preparing ads for the annual Budget Hearing and Financial Town Meeting. On top of that, there are monthly sessions of Probate Court and Municipal Court to deal with.
“The months roll around pretty quickly,” she says.
Aquilante says one of the most common reasons people come into the office is to request information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“FOIA,” she says. “That’s huge. A lot of local residents want to know about different projects in town. They want the documents; they want the backup information – whether they’re for or against a project.”
Last year’s budget listed 103 FOIA requests from the previous year. Carol says that in 2018 the number diminished slightly to 78. The new computer system used for land evidence records will eventually be used to help process FOIA requests. They’ll also begin using the system for a new licensing program, a new probate program, and a new municipal court program.
The activity level in the office picks up even more every two years when elections roll around.
“Next year’s going to be a very busy year,” Aquilante says. “People think it’s far away, but it’s not far away for us, because we’re going to be gearing up for the election.”
Preparation for the election is already underway, in a sense, because Aquilante and her staff have to keep track of legislation that could affect their procedures.
“There’s a lot of proposed legislation that we have to keep an eye on,” she says, “and if that happens there are going to be a lot of changes in elections next year.” There were a number of changes made for the 2018 elections that she credits for making the process run more smoothly than in the past.
The 2020 election will not only be more challenging because it’s a presidential year, but because it’s a year when people will be asked to vote on changes to the Town Charter. Review of the charter will start this year, so revisions can go on the 2020 ballot. During the last charter revision year (2014) there were eight questions on the ballot, but the number of questions has gone as high as 32.
As they try to keep up with election changes and charter revisions, they’re also trying to keep up with state legislation in other areas.
“There are ordinance amendments that have to be made this year, due to state legislation that passed last year,” Aquliante notes. “Because of that we have to change the ordinances to match the state legislation.”
As much as Aquilante and her staff try to keep up with changes, there’s one thing they try to keep from changing – the town’s paper records, stored in the walk-in vault adjacent to their work area.
The records of the vault date back to 1871. Older records are kept at City Hall in Central Falls, which was part of Smithfield until the 1871 division of the town.
“One of my titles is ‘Keeper of the Records,’ so I always like to keep the vault in tip-top shape,” Aquilante says.
Each year she has several of the book bindings restored as they wear out from decades of use. The older, more sensitive records in Smithfield are kept in a humidity-controlled annex vault to keep them from deteriorating. Election ballots are also kept in the annex vault for a prescribed two-year period, until they’re destroyed to make room for the next election.
Visits to the vault aren’t as necessary as they used to be, because the office’s website offers access to land records dating back to 1962. It also offers a number of downloadable forms, and a wide variety of information on the multitude of services provided by the office.
As comprehensive as the website is, Aquilante says she wants people to feel welcome to visit the office.
“It’s nice to have a rapport with the people in town so that they feel that they can come in,” she says.
“The town clerk that I worked with years ago, Flora Simeone, would say anybody that comes to this office, no matter who they are, what political party they are – they’re all treated the same,” she says.
“I like the idea that we have a good relationship with the people in town.”