With DeStefano exit, city clerk race heats up

This November, the election for city clerk may be closely contested for the first time in a decade.

City clerk Ron Smith has held the position for 10 years, but Ward 26 Alderman Sergio Rodriguez said last week that he is considering running for the office this fall. As the official record keeper for city government, the city clerk largely deals with property records, said Sally Brown, a former city clerk who currently serves as deputy clerk. She added that the city clerk also processes lawsuits against the city, issues dog licenses and liquor permits, and approves the names of local businesses.

Rodriguez announced last week that he is forming an exploratory committee to look for sources of funding and gauge his chances of success. He said that he has been encouraged by what he has learned so far.

“Things are looking up,” Rodriguez said. “I’m looking forward to building this [exploratory] committee, and we’ll have an official announcement in a few weeks.”

Rodriguez has been an alderman for nearly 10 years and currently serves as the vice-chair of the advisory council for the National League of Cities. He cited his experience on the local and national level and the steady progression of his career as justification for a possible run for the office of city clerk.

If elected, Rodriguez said, he would modernize the office and make it more accessible. Improved technology could make the voting process smoother and make records easier to access, he said.

“I’ve always been a believer … in good customer service,” Rodriguez said. “I want to make sure that’s done in the right way.”

Smith, who previously served as Ward 20 alderman, said that he first ran for city clerk because he wanted to help people vote and manage their homes, adding that the constant activity at the office also intrigued him.

“There’s a lot to be done with land licenses, fishing licenses, hunting licenses … I was interested in it. And it made me grow up a little,” Smith said. “I had to deal with people every day.”

Candidates for city clerk often run with a mayoral counterpart, which Brown said can help balance the ticket and attract voters, though the clerk’s office is an autonomous and nonpartisan entity. For the past decade, Smith has run with Mayor John DeStefano Jr., but with DeStefano not participating in this year’s election, city clerk candidates may choose to run independently.

Smith and DeStefano have worked together in the past. Since the clerk performs legislative functions like certifying elected aldermen and legislation, Smith said that he worked closely with DeStefano to organize voting for the 2012 presidential elections.

The uncertainty surrounding the end of DeStefano’s tenure has led to the most competitive city clerk election in many years, as the position has not been contested by any candidate with significant name recognition since Smith was elected.

Regardless of the election’s results, Brown said that the clerk’s office would not see any decline in its output.

“Government is supposed to function no matter who’s in or who’s out — that’s what people pay taxes for,” she said.

New Haven city elections will be held on Nov. 7.

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