Certification Programs: Some are mandatory, others voluntary

(from Maine Townsman, May 2005)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

For some Maine municipal professionals, certification is a requirement for holding their jobs. For others, it’s an alternative to be pursued for professional advancement, higher pay or personal satisfaction. And for still others, it’s not yet an important part of their field, but may become so with time.

Certification, as contrasted with education and training, pertains to the performance of a particular job, such as plumbing inspector, town clerk or tax collector. It generally involves both continuing education courses and experience factors, and may be mandatory or voluntary. Maine’s municipal specialties seem to run the gamut.

While trends in professional certification develop slowly, it seems safe to say that there is general satisfaction among municipal employees with the process and rewards of certification, and that some specialties would like to enhance and expand certification. In this field, at least, there are few complaints about mandates and over-regulation, and a general recognition that professional practices are beneficial both to the employee and to the citizens they serve.

This article examines four of the certification protocols in Maine municipal government: code enforcement officers, town and city clerks, treasurers and tax collectors, and town managers.

Required reading

To become a code enforcement officer for any organized municipality in Maine, one must be certified by the State of Maine. That requirement came in with the Growth Management Act of 1987, the same law that mandated the preparation of comprehensive plans amid statewide concerns over growth and sprawl. While Maine’s handling of the sprawl issue is still being debated, the certification of code officers seems to be a settled issue.

Lana Clough, director of CEO certification for the State Planning Office, has been with SPO since the inception of the program, and said that there was remarkably little fuss around the new requirement, which could be seen as a state mandate on towns and cities.

“There was some resistance, but overall the towns thought it was going to be a good thing,” she said. With faster growth rates in many communities came the realization that good building techniques would create a more stable, and valuable, tax base.

Perhaps part of the reason why mandatory certification was accomplished so readily was that the SPO program has always been low-key. There have never been more than three state positions devoted to the program (there are currently two) and the entire program cost is $40,000. Clough explained that, though courses are offered nine or 10 times a year, in South Portland, Lewiston, Bangor and Presque Isle, they use state facilities, and the Department of Environmental Protection delegates some of its employees to teach courses. “Some of our other instructors are willing to drop their rates, knowing it’s for the state,” she said. Referring to pressure to reduce state personnel budgets and line items, she said, “You’ve got to be creative.”

Though only a minority of Maine municipalities have zoning, the vast majority administer shoreland zoning ordinances, a requirement of state law. So of the 449 towns and cities in Maine, 425, or 95 percent, have certified CEOs.

In addition to shoreland zoning, CEOs can get training in internal plumbing and subsurface wastewater systems (another basic requirement) land use and zoning (including junkyard and floodplain ordinance), and building standards, including design and life safety codes. CEOs also take courses in legal issues and enforcement, which Clough called, “the base of all code enforcement techniques.”

Although the Legislature has adopted a statewide building code, and may approve a rehabilitation building code this year, SPO is not yet involved in training for these programs. Clough said it probably could be, for a modest additional cost.

For the most part, the program runs smoothly and there have been few complaints from the public, or from legislators. “In fact, we sometimes get compliments from legislators at public hearings. They appreciate the increased professionalism in their towns.” The days of the selectman’s son getting a pass on a plumbing inspection, she said, are probably over.

Though it’s difficult to quantify the benefits of professional code enforcement, Clough has no doubt they’re significant. “Better building techniques mean that you don’t have a structure fire. That doesn’t show up in the news,” but saves money and lives, she said. Limiting development in floodplains also protects property values. She said that Florida is currently at work on a survey attempting to show that code enforcement can reduce crime and bring economic development into neighborhoods. To her, CEOs are “silent heroes,” who don’t necessarily get the recognition they deserve for contributing to a community’s well-being.

Safeguarding Elections

When Mainers go into a small town office, the first person they see may well be the town clerk, someone who knows when the selectmen meet, issues hunting and fishing licenses, and can usually track down the animal control officer. But the job involves a lot more than routine customer service, and the certification program for town and city clerks has become more demanding in recent years, according to Kathy Montejo, Lewiston city clerk and past president of the clerks’ association.

Though certification is not required, “It’s become a very popular program,” she said. With classes offered around the state, certification has become “pretty standard” in the profession, and not just in larger communities that have training budgets, she said.

Classes are held regularly in Portland, Augusta, Bangor and Presque Isle, and involve election law, vital statistics (such as birth, death and marriage records), and licensing and records management, which may involve keeping minutes of selectmen’s meetings and other official business. Municipal law classes are also important, since clerks get involved in other, less expected, areas, such as the condemnation of buildings. Even such seemingly routine procedures as birth records can present challenges when they involve adoptive parents and remarriages.

A “Clerk 101” class held recently attracted 65 clerks, many of them newly elected. While many clerks are now appointed under selectmen or town managers, a good number continue to be elected, even in towns as large as Windham, Montejo said. While not all of those attending courses choose to become certified, most of them do.

One of the reasons clerk training is so popular is that state laws and regulations “are constantly changing,” and clerks must keep abreast of those changes. The original certification of clerks is for between three and six years, after which recertification is needed.

One change currently being debated by the Legislature is a proposal from the Secretary of State’s office for all clerks to take a course in state election law. While not specifically a certification issue, Montejo said that the clerks would probably include it, if the Legislature decides to create the requirement.

She said clerks, who are responsible for running local elections, realize that, both nationally and in Maine, fair elections have become an important public priority. Creating more training and additional safeguards are probably a small price to pay for greater confidence in the democratic process, she said.

In some towns, certification is linked to promotion and salary increases. In Massachusetts, clerks who become certified earn an automatic $1,000 salary increase.

A few clerks also seek national certification, either because of the sense of professionalism involved or because a town or city may consider a higher level of certification in job performance reviews. Anyone who might be interested in moving to another state and working as a municipal clerk can also benefit, she said. Some 15 Maine clerks and deputy clerks are now certified through the International Institute of Municipal Clerks, which Montejo called “the pinnacle of our profession.”

Though most clerks pursue certification, the state association will not advocate requiring it as a condition of holding the position, Montejo said. “It would be a real hardship on small offices, which would have to be closed, and a lot of travel might be involved.” She believes that those clerks who can manage training sessions will do so, and that, while voluntary, certification will continue to be a point of pride in her profession.

Voluntary, But Popular

Like the municipal clerks, treasurer and tax collector certification is voluntary – but extremely popular. Stu Marckoon, administrative assistant (and treasurer) of Lamoine, and the new president of the state association, says that the group has more than 800 members – the largest such affiliate organization of the Maine Municipal Association.

Training sessions are held regularly in Augusta, Bangor, Saco and Presque Isle, and the association conducts its Annual Tax School, held regionally, this year in Saco and Orono.

The certification programs it offers are based largely on “education and information sharing,” he said. While the two jobs are sometimes linked in the public’s mind – and often involve the same individual in smaller towns – they are distinct in statute and function.

“The tax collector’s job is a quite limited one – to collect the taxes authorized by the assessors” he said. This typically involves real estate, personal property and automobile excise taxes. Treasurers have a broader scope, depending on the size of the town and the complexity of its investments. Treasurers are more likely to have accounting backgrounds, and are more often affected by legal changes.

Still, the two professions have a certain stability not always enjoyed by their fellow officials. Though they are sometimes a dual role in towns, there is a good case for the positions to be held by different people, Marckoon said.

Some incidents of irregularities in excise tax collection have affected a number of town offices around the state, some involving criminal charges. The problem, he said, is not so much training or the way the jobs are legally structured, as it is “having two sets of eyes on every transaction, a system of checks and balances.”

The excise tax collection issue is of sufficient concern that the state Department of Audit is conducting a separate review of towns and cities statewide, he noted. Towns that have a rigorous policy of internal review are not likely to run into problems. Still, after discussion at recent meetings, the association decided to adopt its first code of ethics, which was recently approved and will be posted on the association website.

The group is also satisfied with the certification system remaining voluntary, in part because it is so commonly sought by the relevant officials. Mandatory certification “is certainly not anything we would propose,” Marckoon said.

An Unclassifiable Job?

The fact that most municipal officials are unaware that there is a certification program for town managers is understandable, said Ruth Marden, town manager of Jay and president of the Maine Town and City Management Association.

Only six managers have been certified (although there are 15 new applications for the program) and it simply hasn’t caught on among the boards of selectmen and town and city councils that would presumably be most interested in such a program.

The association would like to change that, however, Marden said, by broadening the requirements and expanding the reach of the program. She recently heard that one board of selectmen, apparently acting on its own, had inquired about the certification program and is apparently considering making it a requirement in its town manager performance review. “That was a first for us, and we took it as an encouraging sign,” she said.

Marden readily admits that one of the difficulties of designing a municipal manager certification program is that managers perform so many different roles. Her own case is typical. She has chaired a board of selectmen, and been a manager in Anson, Livermore Falls, and now Jay, “which I hope is my last stop.” In two of the towns she was a health officer; in two more, a tax collector-treasurer. Town managers have been known to help out on public works crews and even drive the transfer station truck.

“A town manager needs to know a little about everything, and a whole lot about management,” Marden said. Still, by focusing on core responsibilities, she thinks a good certification program can be devised that will attract broader participation. “There’s a feeling that it’s time, that it’s becoming expected. We need to get together as a group to understand the needs of our peers, and what the people we work with are doing.”

As part of the effort, the association is holding meetings and training sessions in new parts of the state. A recent meeting in Presque Isle, with collaboration from Caribou, produced what Marden called “a really useful presentation on collaboration and regionalization efforts.” She said that northern Aroostook County managers “are doing a really good job in this area, and have a lot to teach the rest of us. I know I came back with a lot of ideas.”

So far, town and city managers seem to have avoided the professional burnout that is said to have overtaken the position of public school superintendent in Maine. There does not appear to be a shortage of manager candidates, and in fact, “There has been an influx of new blood, from other professions, which is really a great thing,” she said.

But more professional programs, and a greater exchange of ideas among managers, should help with the inevitable job stresses, Marden said. “There are more night meetings, and more issues to deal with. It can become quite a stressful and demanding job,” she said, but added, “I still love it.”

Ultimately, certification can help public understanding of the job managers do. “I think everyone recognizes that professional development can be an important part of these jobs,” she said. “By demonstrating that we’re putting in the effort to become more adept at what we do,” managers can satisfy not only their immediate superiors, but the public as a whole.