By Andrew Tellijohn
When floodwaters hit Stockton in 2007, City Clerk-Treasurer Beth Winchester worked 16-hour days for about a month straight to make sure residents’ needs were met and questions were answered. She was taking so many calls and visits that she lost track of making sure her own needs were met.
“People were stopping at my house, because I was flooded as well,” Winchester says. But she also spent many hours away from her flooded home to help others through the crisis. “I had a lot of family help. I honestly have no clue what they tossed out because I wasn’t there.” While she wanted to help everybody else in town, she realized she needed to carve out some time to take care of her own home as well.
It was a watershed moment for Winchester, who until that time had been willing to take calls and answer questions at pretty much all hours. She started creating some boundaries around when she was available to deal with work situations and when she was on personal time.
It’s a balancing act faced by city officials statewide, but particularly in small cities, where the staff often wear multiple hats, and all the residents know each other.
Winchester — who has been clerk in the city of about 700 since 2001 — now screens her calls after hours and avoids taking work calls on the weekend. While she loves the job because every day is different, she says it’s important to strike a balance between work and personal life to avoid burnout.
“You do have to kind of take a step back,” says Winchester. “It is a job.”
Working with councils
In small towns, city employees know they have to be on call for emergencies, ranging from water main breaks to power outages and other significant incidents. But several say they try to funnel routine issues into business hours.
Following the flood in Stockton, the city started using a complaint form. Until that is filled out, Winchester says, work won’t start on a solution.
City council members and mayors typically respect the boundaries, she says. In fact, Winchester and other small-city clerks tell their new elected officials that they, too, should figure out their willingness for doing city work during off hours.
Tina Rennemo, city clerk-treasurer in Baudette (population 1,069), has long set limits on when she’s available to the public, and she has published that advice for other city staff and elected officials.
“One of the things in the handbook I share is you have to decide what kind of a volunteer you want to be,” she says. “If you want to be wide open at all times of the day, wherever you are, then you have to stand by that, because they’ll follow whatever precedent you set. If you want to be able to go out on an evening with your family and not be approached, you have to set those parameters early on.”
It takes discipline
Rennemo, who’s been the Baudette clerk for 28 years, acknowledges that since people can now answer emails from their phone, that often blurs the lines between work and personal life, as does the COVID-19 pandemic requiring some to work from home. For herself, she’s determined to be disciplined and keep work time, as much as possible, limited to work hours.
She tries to be polite by saying she doesn’t have the information with her to answer a resident’s question or by telling them she’d be happy to talk with them from the office.
That has bothered a few, because they wanted answers right away, but most understand. It’s especially important, Rennemo says, to establish those boundaries in small towns where those asking questions are often friends and social acquaintances.
“It’s the only way to stay healthy, mind-wise and otherwise,” she says.
Vesta City Clerk and Treasurer Jacob Kolander says after spending 17 years in hospitality and 16 as an emergency medical responder, almost nothing the city throws at him is a surprise.
He, too, gets his work email on his phone and gets approached at restaurants or other non-work settings by well-meaning folks trying to clarify an ordinance or requirement. Unless it’s an emergency, he just requests they contact him when he’s “on the clock” working for the city of 300.
Folks also have approached him with payments when he’s off, but he doesn’t accept them, asking instead that they drop them off at the office.
Kolander has been on the job for four years now, and he knows there are situations he’ll have to respond to right away. But he made clear to elected officials and staff that, as an hourly worker, he’ll seek compensation for those afterhours scenarios.
“That was something I put into play right away when I started,” he says. “It can be tough. I said from the get-go — and I learned this from years in management — when I leave this office, I am not the city clerk anymore. I think I’ve set a pretty good precedent.”
Once, when Angie Storlie sat down in church on Sunday morning, the person in front of her handed her a water bill payment. “I said, ‘Fine, I’ll take it, but if I lose it between here and my office, it’s on you, not me,” she says.
Storlie, city clerk and treasurer in Bigfork (population 439), says she actually doesn’t mind when people approach her at church or the grocery store with questions — as long as they leave her alone when she is on vacation.
“If I get asked a question that I know the answer to, even if I’m not at work, to me it seems a lot easier to just answer that question as opposed to telling that person I’ll get back to them later, and then having to remember when I go back to work,” says Storlie, who’s been the clerk for 14 years.
The situation at church was not typical and she doesn’t get many calls in off hours anymore, but she does get frequent texts and has, on occasion, been stopped in the school parking lot while picking up her kids. She just figures it’s part of the job. If she doesn’t have the answer, she’ll promise a return phone call when she gets back to the office.
Storlie’s relatively open-door policy stems, in part, from growing up in the community and knowing almost everyone. It’s not a policy she has actively communicated. It’s just what has developed over the years.
But when she’s on vacation, Storlie leaves a message on the city voicemail and an out-of-office email response. When they hear that she’s out, people generally leave her alone.
“I feel like it’s because I am really responsive the rest of the time that people are willing to give me my time off,” Storlie says. “It wouldn’t work for everybody, but it has for me.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer.