Marion Mudge tallies up 30 years as Tisbury town clerk

On May 5, State Representative Timothy Madden presented Tisbury town clerk Marion Mudge with a House of Representatives citation of appreciation for her long service. Former Tisbury selectman chairman Jeff Kristal, right, added his congratulations. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Marion Mudge wrapped up her 30-year career as Tisbury’s town clerk on Tuesday, May 20, by performing one of her duties — swearing in an elected official — for the last time. What made that ceremony more memorable than countless others was that she swore in her own newly elected successor, Hillary Conklin.

With Ms. Mudge’s decision not to seek reelection and to retire, her last day in office was May 20, seven days after Tisbury town elections. In an interview with The Times sandwiched between the annual town meeting and elections, Ms. Mudge reflected on her upcoming retirement from a job she described as “constantly changing and totally fascinating.”

Ms. Mudge’s first foray into town government was as a West Tisbury finance committee (FinCom) member, elected in 1976.

“I remember that the finance committee [FinCom] wouldn’t give the fire department $200 to buy a chain saw,” Ms. Mudge said. “You would think of all the towns on the Island, in West Tisbury, with so much forest land, it would be a necessity. That’s why I ran.”

After serving a three-year term, she moved to Tisbury, where she was elected to serve on the finance and advisory committee for two terms, totaling five years. In 1984, her good friend Kathy Gillis, who happened to be Tisbury town clerk, convinced her to run for the office.

I knew nothing about it, other than dog licenses and something to do with births, deaths, and marriages; I had no clue what I was getting into,” Ms. Mudge admitted. “It was back in the days when you stuck your head in the office once or twice a week, for 10 minutes.”

On her first day as town clerk, however, the one full-time assistant in her office announced she would be retiring in a year. Ms. Mudge said she began spending a lot more time in the office than she had expected to, and it grew from there.

I quickly discovered that the only way to do the job was to go after the education,” she said.

Edgartown town clerk Nancy Smith got her started by taking her to a conference in Falmouth. Ms. Mudge later attended a weeklong summer program run by the New England Association of City and Town Clerks, and went on to fulfill the requirements to become a Certified Municipal Clerk.

She also joined a board formed by a group of Massachusetts town clerks that created a state certification program, with recertification required every four years. Ms. Mudge recently achieved her fifth recertification. She also served two years as the logistics chairman and three years as the curriculum chairman for the New England Municipal Clerks’ weeklong summer program.

Among her many duties, she handles all election-related tasks, creates and maintains vital records, provides information and education about ethics and open meetings, certifies appropriations and campaign finances, provides copies of amended town bylaws to the state’s Attorney General’s office, and takes minutes at town meetings and keeps records of them.

Dramatic changes

When Ms. Mudge first assumed office, she did everything by hand. Records had to be typed on a typewriter. Since vital records can’t have any mistakes, the advent of typewriters with self-correcting tape were a godsend.

The arrival of computers changed things dramatically for the better, Ms. Mudge said, especially for maintaining vital records and registering voters. “The system has come a long, long way,” she added. “It used to take us two minutes to add a new voter’s information into the system, and now it takes seconds.”

Ms. Mudge said the automatic ballot counter is her favorite technological upgrade by far. However, she added, although it provides speedier election results, she still has to check every ballot to see whether a voter wrote something on it, and to tally write-ins.

Ms. Mudge recalled that Tisbury had to delay getting an automatic counter the first year it was approved for sale in Massachusetts, because the 40 override questions on the town’s ballot would be too much for the fledgling technology.

She said she was especially pleased when the town implemented a new handicapped ballot machine a few years ago. “I like the fact that it allows people who can’t read, have low vision, no vision, and problems with tremors or coordination to be able to vote more easily.”  The machine has to be programmed for every election, though, and is very expensive, she said.

Of all the election results Ms. Mudge witnessed over the years, she said Tisbury’s vote on a ballot question for the sale of beer and wine surprised her the most.

I was just dumbfounded,” she said. “To have it come out as a tie was one of the most shocking results I’ve seen. The recount was also interesting, too. It never occurred to me that so many people would want to come and watch.” The question failed on the recount by two votes.

Asked what she receives the most questions about, Ms. Mudge said it is absentee ballots.

People often ask, does it only count if it’s close?” she said. “And I always tell them, no, an absentee ballot is a vote that’s counted just like all the others.”

On Martha’s Vineyard all towns except Chilmark and Edgartown elect their town clerks. Edgartown voters recently approved changing the office of town clerk to an appointed position.

Ms. Mudge is a firm believer that it should remain an elected office, not an appointed position.

“I think the town clerk should remain an elected official, and shouldn’t have to answer to anyone other than the voters,” she said.

She noted that more than 200 [out of 351] Massachusetts towns and cities still have elected town clerks. “When you’re elected, I think you go the extra mile, knowing that voters put an X by your name,” Ms. Mudge said. “And everybody who walks through your office door is your boss.”

The next chapter

Given how much she has enjoyed her job, Ms. Mudge said she has mixed feelings about retiring, but she based her decision on her health. In 1991 she began experiencing extreme fatigue and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system, which has affected her right leg and hand.

But I’m still walking, independent, and working,” Ms. Mudge said, which she attributes to a weekly injection of interferon. Nonetheless, she said her concerns about the effects of MS on her ability to multi-task prompted her decision not to run for reelection.

I want to be pre-emptive,” she said, explaining that another three years as town clerk would include a presidential election and computer upgrade, which might prove too challenging for her if her symptoms worsen.

Despite it being a busy time of year in town government, Ms. Mudge’s impending retirement did not escape fanfare. On May 5, Rep. Tim Madden, accompanied by former selectman chairman Jeff Kristal, presented a citation to her in front of town hall, thanking her for her 30 years of service. Town officials and employees feted her at a potluck luncheon on May 14.

As for retirement plans, Ms Mudge said she plans to visit a house she owns in Canada and to enjoy a “staycation” on Martha’s Vineyard this summer. She also looks forward to spending time with her family. Her daughter Beth and son-in-law John Johnson, who live in Livermore, Maine, have five children ranging in age from 3 to 11, in addition to Mr. Johnson’s three college-age children from a previous marriage. Her other daughter and son-in-law, Molly and Mike Scarbrough, and their son Jack, age 4, live in West Tisbury.