Township losing faithful civil servant

By Ron Leir 

Observer Correspondent 

LYNDHURST – 

When she was appointed Township Clerk, her office was still in the Municipal Building, computers were just starting to take hold and New Jersey had just adopted the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) six months prior.

Since then, there’s been a few tons of paperwork that have passed under the watchful eyes of Helen Polito, who is now getting ready to call it a day.

Polito is set to retire May 31 after nearly 13 years as municipal clerk and a month shy of 29 years of service with the township.

A lifelong Lyndhurst resident who went to Washington Grammar School and graduated from Lyndhurst High School in 1972, Polito enrolled in Montclair State University as a home economics major but left after a year to test the job market.

She worked for several private companies in clerical and accounts payable positions before getting married. She and her husband Stephen will mark their 40-year anniversary in October.

“I had my first daughter Marie and I became a fulltime mom in 1978,” Polito said. “In 1981, I had my second daughter Michelle and when she was in kindergarten, I was hired by the then-Commissioner Lou Stellato as a part-time clerk in the Public Works Department in 1986.”

In 1993, the then-DPW Commissioner Paul Haggerty designated her for elevation to full-time clerk.

And, in 2000, when the then-Township Clerk Josephine Oleske made known her plans to leave the job in two years, Polito was transferred to the Township Clerk’s office to serve as a secretary/clerk and, eventually registered for courses at Rutgers University required for certification as a registered municipal clerk in New Jersey.

Typically, it can take a few years to complete the course work but Polito signed up to take a full load of five classes and completed all of them successfully in just a year.

Effective July 1, 2002, she was appointed to a 3-year term as Acting Township Clerk and in October 2002, after receiving her state certification papers, her title became permanent. She acquired tenure in the job after she was reappointed.

“And now I’m retiring,” Polito said, during a recent interview with The Observer. “It was time. Different things came about in my life and now I can enjoy my grandchildren: Stephen, 4; Evan, who will be 3 in July; Avery, 10 months; and newborn Michael.”

In recent years, the job’s demands have mounted while the office has had fewer personnel to meet them.

“The state’s requirements are a lot more stringent,” Polito said. “There are more reports we have to provide and, incidentally, tons more OPRA requests – that’s become a job in itself.”

Asked to account for the uptick, Polito suggested that, “people want to know more about their government, especially because of hard times they want to know where their money is being spent.” And, she noted, some of the OPRA filings are from for-profit groups engaged in research projects.

“A good quarter of my day,” she added, is spent just handling OPRA business.

Another reporting chore triggered by state policy changes is the mandated annual online filing of financial disclosure forms by local government officers, “and we’ll be starting to file liquor license applications through the internet next,” Polito said.

When the state began phasing in electronic maintenance and reporting of municipal data entries, Polito – whose office serves as custodian of township records – arranged for a private firm to begin scanning municipal documents in August 2007.

That was – and continues to be – a huge undertaking, as witnessed by the 20,395 resolutions and 2,911 ordinances adopted by the township Board of Commissioners since 1917, Lyndhurst’s date of incorporation, Polito said.

Between 1852 and 1917, the area was known as Union Township and Polito has some archives, including government minutes books dating from the 1800s that are too fragile to be scanned.

“I’ve learned a lot of Lyndhurst history here,” Polito said. “It’s fascinating to hear how these laws come on the books. That’s what keeps you involved.”

Preparing for and closing down elections was also part of Polito’s domain, although the load lightened a bit after 2008 when the township was relieved of the Board of Education balloting.

On the other hand, the starting time for municipal elections was advanced, from 7 to 6 a.m., to favor voters going to work, which meant, “that brought me into the office at 4:30 [a.m.]” to receive the voter registration books and signs for polling stations from the county which, in turn, had to be delivered to the polls.

Polito recalls one election when the public schools used as polling stations were discovered to be locked “so I had to wake up [BOE business administrator] Dave DiPisa, but they were open on time.”

In the months leading up to November 2012, Polito and her small staff were busy with yet another task – packing – after the township administration opted to move the cramped Clerk’s Office to larger quarters in the Municipal Annex on Stuyvesant Ave. and to allow Rep. Bill Pascrell’s staff to occupy the clerk’s office space, space which was then redecorated.

“I’ve enjoyed my time here and I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Polito said. “I’ll miss being with the people here and helping the residents and my co-workers. After all, we’re the face of municipal government and we try to be hospitable and cordial as much as we can.”

No question she has been every bit of that, said former Commissioner Brian Haggerty, whose eight years in office overlapped Polito’s tenure. “Helen is one of the sweetest, kindest people I could work with and it was a delight to deal with her and her staff,” he said. “She helped make everyone’s life much better.”

Polito, who is expected to be replaced by Deputy Clerk Angela White, is in line for an annual pension of $42,815, according to the state Div. of Pensions & Benefits.

The Observer Staff