Canton eyes COVID relief share amid uncertainty

Canton Municipal Building. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — The race for Canton town clerk is now uncontested, with appointed interim Clerk Karin S. Blackburn withdrawing her intent to seek election.

In a Thursday statement in part citing disrespectful treatment and a “toxic environment” at the municipal building, Mrs. Blackburn wrote she has made the decision “after serious soul-searching” and family discussions.

“It is a decision I have reached with mixed emotions, but one I am certain is the best for me and, I hope, for the greater good of the community,” she wrote.

Voters elected Mrs. Blackburn in 2019 to serve a four-year term on Town Council. In her year as a councilor, she was a member of the recreation, information and technology, economic development, health insurance, audit and shared services committees.

She resigned from Town Council in December before being appointed clerk for the remaining year of Lisa A. Hammond’s four-year term. Mrs. Hammond retired at the end of 2020 after more than 30 years clerking for town and village offices. She continues clerking for Rensselaer Falls and had recommended then Deputy Clerk Heidi L. Smith to step into the interim Canton role.

Once the clerk vacancy was officially filed with the state, two candidates were interviewed for the position — Mrs. Blackburn and Mrs. Smith.

When Mrs. Blackburn was selected to fill the role through the end of 2021, dozens of taxpayers signed on to the town’s virtual year-end meeting in protest. More than 70 people participated in the Dec. 31 public meeting with town officials, the largest municipal meeting in Canton since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following a 45-minute public comment period, Town Council — Robert J. Washo, Timothy J. Danehy and James T. Smith, with Supervisor Mary Ann Ashley — unanimously voted to appoint Mrs. Blackburn, who was interviewed for the position Dec. 17, and filed her council resignation Dec. 21.

Mr. Danehy, who has since resigned from council, responded to the public during the meeting.

“Whether we agree or disagree on what to do or how to do it, one thing that has never been in doubt is that if they’re motivated by anything other than doing what’s best for the town of Canton,” Mr. Danehy said at the time of his fellow council members. “Never, not once, in any decision or action in my time here, have I questioned it, and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on that this month.”

He added that municipal work is “a balancing act,” and decisions can sometimes carry outcomes that only benefit some constituents.

“We always try to find the right balance and we always try to do the right thing,” he said, denying allegations from community members that the appointment of Mrs. Blackburn was made for “personal gain.” “Those decisions can be really tough. When it comes down to personnel with multiple hometown qualified candidates, then it’s going to be really, really tough.”

Martha Foley Smith was appointed earlier this year to fill the Town Council vacancy left by Mrs. Blackburn. With Mr. Danehy’s March resignation, Town Council now sits at three members: Ms. Foley Smith, Mr. Washo and Mr. Smith.

The clerk is responsible for hiring a deputy clerk, and when Mrs. Blackburn offered the job to Mrs. Smith, who had worked as deputy clerk for the last three years, she said she declined.

In February, both women announced campaigns to run in November for a full term.

After five months of clerking, Mrs. Blackburn maintains she has never before “been treated with the disrespect and lack of civility” that she says came with her appointment.

“I have faced accusations of taking money, not knowing what I am doing, and being dishonest; I have been confronted in public places by random community members attacking my integrity and intentions, shunned in my workplace, and had coffee dumped on my car in the municipal parking lot,” she wrote in her statement this week. “Enough is enough.”

Mrs. Blackburn completed a three-day training facilitated by the state Town Clerks Association, and wrote she better understood community responses to her work after learning more about town clerk procedures, claiming proper procedures were not followed prior to her appointment.

“I better understand why I have been yelled at by taxpayers when I wouldn’t allow them to make their payments after the due date without penalty, as had previously been permitted,” she wrote. “I better understand community members’ frustration when I enforced rules and requirements for dog licenses and other permits and payments, which hadn’t previously been enforced.”

She added: “I believe I have improved processes and workflows, and am proud of the strong working relationships I have built with many with whom I work and interact. I have the knowledge, skills and temperament to make the changes necessary to ensure that things are being done right in the town clerk’s office, but I simply can’t do it in the face of such hostility and disrespect.”

The appointment expires Dec. 31, and Mrs. Blackburn said she will complete that term.

“I have a strong passion to do good things for the community, and the work ethic to do the clerk’s job and do it well,” she wrote. “But I don’t believe that is possible in the toxic environment that currently surrounds my position.”

Mrs. Blackburn declined to be interviewed to add to her statement.

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(1) comment

Earlybird

Ethics 101: Elected Officials shouldn't resign from their elected position to take a job at the place they govern. Unless there was a 1 year or more waiting period.

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