Conversations With Clerks: Laura Gemme

The Municipal Clerk truly is a community’s jack-of-all-trades, often overseeing multiple departments and performing numerous tasks daily to keep local governments and public services running smoothly and efficiently. Conversations With Clerks is a continuing DeCoder series in which we talk with Municipal Clerks from across the country to learn more about their unique experiences and what it takes to be effective and successful in their roles.

This issue’s featured clerk:

Laura Gemme Town Clerk of Reading, MA

Laura Gemme

Town Clerk
Reading, MA

How long have you been the Town Clerk in Reading, MA?

September 1st of 2023 will mark my 14th year as the appointed Town Clerk.

What is the Town of Reading like?

Reading is a community of almost 27,000 about 15 minutes north of Boston. But I tell people that the real distance depends on the time of day! The majority of Reading residents work in Boston which makes Reading a perfect location for commuting into the city. We have a great school system. Although we have a vibrant downtown, we are also considered to be a bedroom community. There are not a whole lot of commercial establishments here– it’s mostly residential.

Reading is a pretty historic area too, isn’t it?

Very much so. Reading was settled in 1639 and incorporated in 1644. We’re not as historic as say, Lexington and Concord but we share a lot of the rich history of that time. It’s really interesting to read through some of the records that we have stored away that date back to the 1600s to see how people lived and worked at that time.

What have you learned about local government in Reading during those early days?

It was interesting to discover that they had similar conversations in town meetings back in the 1600’s and 1700s. Another thing that impressed me is just how well-documented their public meetings were. Today when I create the minutes for our town meetings, I sit, and I type it all out. Back then it was all handwritten. And it amazes me on how neat and well written it was and how there are no scribbles or mistakes. If I had to sit there and write it out as they did, we’d have a problem!

What was your journey to becoming a town clerk? Is it a position that you aspired to?

Most every aspect of my career has been by accident. When I started teaching computer software to adults, that was by accident, because I ran into somebody who was running a business teaching computer software, and she asked me if I was interested in working there.

[In my last job], the town of Reading was one of my customers and I learned that they were in need of a town clerk. They knew me from my work supporting [the documents management system] for the town and they knew my capabilities. So in the end I took the job and they got a two for one.

What do you like most about your job?

I think my favorite thing is Election Day. I love to plan and sit down and think through a process and pull things together. It’s fun to be able to pull off an event that involves a couple hundred people and to have it go smoothly while keeping the process within the law.

Even though I’ve been here almost 14 years, I also like that I’m still learning new things. There is always something that comes up that I have to do some research for or questions that need to be answered. I have also made a lot of connections with some really good people that I never would have had otherwise.

What have been some the biggest challenges in your job?

The very first recall of an elected official in the history of Reading happened during my term here. Determining the process for addressing the situation and following the law was definitely a challenge.

Another challenge has been properly preserving historical records. One of the things that I’m pretty proud of is that I was able to secure some of the critical funding for preserving our documents. Many of our vital records going back to the 1600s were literally starting to turn to powder. So being able to come up with the funding to preserve those records will help ensure they can be enjoyed for many years to come.

What big changes have you seen in your job over the years?

The job of town clerk is about change – and staying the same. Since I’ve been here, we’ve been through two town managers. We are now on the third town manager and it’s interesting watching the change of the atmosphere in the town as each new manager comes in.  But I think the biggest change and probably the saddest is the way people get along. You know, that’s not just here. Division seems to be everywhere.

On the plus side, there’s been a lot of growth here. A lot of housing is being put in. There’s definitely been a lot of change in election laws, too. That happens every election season.

What about technology?

Reading has been very good at is making sure that we keep up with technology. It has definitely changed over the last 14 years, though. We license dogs, and 14 years ago, what was happening is that we had an Excel spreadsheet of the dogs and their names. We would print out the spreadsheet and write everything out on it, and then put it into the system. Today we don’t do that. It’s all strictly electronic. There’s no printed sheet. We’ve done away with a lot of paper. Our electronic document system has cut our resource time down significantly.

How important is it to a clerk to have your code up to date all the time?

It’s extremely important. When I first came in, or not too long after, we did a project going through and making sure that the town code was totally up to date. We brought it up to date, took it to a Town Meeting and got it approved by the Attorney General’s Office.

What advice would you give new clerks?

First and foremost, take care of yourself. This can be a crazy and stressful job so remember to take time for you. New clerks also need to realize is that there’s only one of you in town. If you’re in Massachusetts, that’s 351 of you sitting in town and city clerk’s offices. It is extremely important to create connections and to attend the conferences. Without those connections, you’re in a bubble.  There’s always something new, always something to research, always changes that you have to keep up with. If you’re not attending those conferences, then it’s almost impossible to do your job correctly. So connect with the associations and create connections with your neighbors and have somebody to mentor you.

Did you have a mentor?

Yes. Barbara Stats from North Reading was a clerk for many years. She just recently retired. I have referred to her as my mentor because anytime I had questions about anything I contacted her. I worked with somebody who knew what this job entails and who has been around a while – that was extremely helpful.

What about education?

Education is so important. This job is always changing. There needs to be some sort of knowledge base to get started. Every city is different. Every town is different. It used to be pretty easy for somebody to come in off the street and do this job and today it’s not so much. Having even a basic knowledge of government or relevant experience from a previous job can give you a good start.

What is on your bucket list?

I want to visit every state in the United States. So far I’ve hit 36. After I hit every state then I plan on visiting all of Canada and Mexico.

What is the best kept secret about Reading?

I am sure some of the local historians have some good stories! Recently it’s been talked about how Boston Celtics Hall of Famer, the late Bill Russell lived here.

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