Two candidates are vying for the office of town clerk in the upcoming Greenburgh Democratic primary. On June 25, incumbent Judith Beville, who has served since January 2008, will face off with Maria Portilla, who has been endorsed by the Greenburgh Democratic Committee.
The winner of the primary will appear on the ballot in November, the loser will not. Town clerk is a full-time position that pays $90,283 a year.
The committee also endorsed Paul Feiner for town supervisor and Ken Jones (incumbent) and Gina Jackson for town board. Westchester County Executive George Latimer supports the committee’s slate.
Beville and Portilla were scheduled to participate June 13 in a televised Candidates’ Forum, sponsored by the Council of Greenburgh Civic Associations and moderated by the League of Women Voters at Greenburgh Town Hall.
Beville, 64, a lifelong Greenburgh resident, is seeking a sixth two-year term. She has been endorsed by the Black Democrats of Westchester County and the Westchester Black Women’s Political Caucus; serves on the New York State Mentoring Program Advisory Council and the executive committee of the Westchester Municipal Officials Association; and chairs Westchester’s 400 Years Project to spread awareness of the contributions of African-Americans from the period of enslavement in Westchester to the present. She is a member of Democratic Municipal Officials, the county’s African-American Advisory Board, the Why Voting Matters Collaboration, and the Kiwanis Club, formerly serving as president of its Fairview-Greenburgh chapter. She was co-founder, with Feiner, of the Greenburgh Human Rights Committee.
Portilla, 62, came to the U.S. from Peru 26 years ago. She is the Democratic leader for District 27 in Elmsford, and senior social caseworker on the multidisciplinary team of Child Protective Services in the Westchester County Department of Social Services. A member of the Greenburgh Human Rights Committee and the executive committee of Hispanic Democrats of Westchester, Portilla was honored at the town’s March 2015 annual Women’s History Month Celebration, an awards program initiated by Beville.
Portilla became involved in politics as a child in Cuzco, where her grandmother ran for mayor. “I was used to canvassing at 8 years old, handing out poll cards,” she explained. “In Lima, I always worked in elections as a volunteer.” Since 2007 she has worked the polls in Westchester. “I believe in democracy,” she emphasized. “I don’t believe that people need to be forced to do things. People have the right to make choices.”
Though Portilla has never run for office, she decided to now because “There were things that were not being done properly that are the duties of a town clerk,” she explained. “We need fresh blood, somebody who wants to make changes and improve this office.”
She cites her years of coordinating with county government, families, schools, hospitals and other entities, dealing with legal, health, safety and other issues, as the expertise necessary to be the town clerk.
Her platform includes ensuring evening and weekend hours at the clerk’s office; increasing automatic public access to records; enabling residents to pay for licenses and permits through the town website; and speeding up responses to the public’s freedom of information (FOIL) requests. She also wants to offer notary service.
“We need to update ourselves to be equal to or better than the other municipalities,” Portilla said.
According to GreenburghTogether.com, the website for the Democratic Committee-endorsed candidates, Portilla will “welcome multilingualism in positions that affect the public,” and establish a town clerk mobile unit. Acknowledging that money needs to be found to accomplish the latter, she said, “I am a team player; we’re going to figure out how to get funds for this.”
Beville, who has a master’s degree in public administration from the State University of New York at Albany, had run for office before becoming town clerk, serving for six years on the board of the Valhalla Union Free School District. She pointed out that the position of town clerk is not “a glorified secretary,” and requires depth of knowledge and experience.
“You need administrative skills to be able to coordinate and organize the business of the Town Council and serve as a liaison between the governing body and the community,” she said. “That’s one of the major tasks and responsibilities of a town clerk … Town Hall is not an ivory tower. It’s a place where people should feel comfortable coming in to inquire about how their local government can best serve them.”
Regarding FOIL requests, Beville said she is encouraging quicker responses from department heads to requests for information in their records. She asked that each designate a “records access officer.” Such accountability, she said, would prevent requests from being considered denied, by law, when they don’t receive a timely response, resulting in appeals, hearings and reviews involving the town board and attorney.
To foster a more customer service-oriented approach, Beville’s three-person, part-time staff now includes a Spanish-speaking permits clerk, and personnel with corporate backgrounds, being “cross-trained” to handle one another’s duties if necessary.
Going forward, Beville said, she wants to automate the FOIL process with state-of-the-art software, and install a credit card machine for processing more types of license applications. She also envisions growing the internship program that she, Feiner and Town Attorney Tim Lewis oversee, “because it supports the development of our youth as future leaders.”