Press-Republican

January 1, 2013

Franklin County clerk retires

By DENISE A. RAYMO
Press-Republican

---- — MALONE — Her father worked for the railroad, her mother was a homemaker, her older sister was a secretarial-school graduate, and her twin brother was headed to college.

“I always thought I’d be a secretary, and I always liked people,” said Wanda Murtagh. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I started taking Civil Service tests because I wanted to stay in the area.”

And stay she did — for 47 years.

Murtagh retired from public service Monday as the first and only woman ever elected to serve as Franklin County clerk.

Standing by her dining-room table, she unfurled a scroll several times longer than she is tall, a gift presented at her retirement dinner that details her many career accomplishments.

The list included securing more than $750,000 in grant funds, starting a satellite office for the Department of Motor Vehicles, modernizing and digitizing pistol permits, passports and other crucial documents, partnering with the Real Property Tax Office on geographic-information-system technology, streamlining county-wide roster-card files for all public employees for the Personnel Office and moving all of the county’s genealogical records to one secure site.

BURDEN SHARED

The achievement she is most proud of is the place that she had envisioned and brought to fruition through hard work and a dedicated staff — a room that was recently dedicated as the Wanda D. Murtagh Records Management Center, where all the county’s critical documents are kept.

She also spearheaded the county’s Bicentennial Celebration in 2008 and oversaw creation of a permanent display case in the Main Street lobby of the County Courthouse where exhibits of local history are there to enjoy.

And during tough financial times, Murtagh convinced legislators to collect user fees the county was entitled to receive as a way to increase revenue through filing charges and DMV transactions.

More income was generated by her office accepting DMV registrations from short-staffed New York City dealerships that needed paperwork done quickly.

Murtagh not only got Franklin County on board but talked to her counterparts in other small, rural counties like Essex, Herkimer, Greene and Cortland, so they could do the same.

That project, started here in 2004, brings Franklin County $250,000 a year, she said.

Murtagh served as president of the New York State County Clerk’s Association, which fought for and recently won a percentage of DMV Internet-transaction fees from the state and opposed additional license-plate fees former Gov. David Paterson supported.

“We fight for legislation and fairness for our constituents,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on. The county clerks came together and shared the burden.”

HIGH STANDARDS

She admits being a tough taskmaster who expected staffers to conduct themselves as professionals and hold themselves to her standards.

It was a high bar for some to reach, and her dedication to it cost her, but Murtagh felt accepting anything less was unfair to the people she ultimately answered to — the county taxpayers.

“I’m proud that I’m a Democrat, that I have had high standards and been dedicated and have had honesty and integrity,” she said. “And I’m proud of how I stayed in office.”

She said her friendship with and support from former County Clerk Norm Dumas and former Democratic Party Chairman Joe Pickreign helped her navigate the political waters throughout her career. 

Murtagh, who worked in the Essex County Clerk’s Office for nearly seven years until her marriage to Scotty Murtagh brought her north in 1971, was serving as supervisor of the DMV under Dumas, who decided to retire after 31 years.

Dumas encouraged her to run for the clerk's post as his replacement.

Her Republican challenger in that 1989 election was Paul Maroun, who is now general counsel to Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury), a member of the County Legislature and mayor of the Village of Tupper Lake.

Murtagh defeated him by a vote of 7,555 to 6,403 and served a total of six terms in office.

She was unopposed each time she ran for re-election.

For the past eight years, Maroun has been chairman of the Legislature’s Administrative Committee, which oversees operations at the County Clerk’s Office.

'BITTERSWEET'

Murtagh leaves office with one year left on her term because of her 89-year-old mother’s declining health and her own desire to see the United States and relax with her husband.

“My life has been consumed by work, home and family,” she said. “I love the outdoors and flowers and a garden.

“I’d just like to stay busy and relax. I’d like to travel. I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon.”

Murtagh, who turned 66 last week, was widowed in 1995 and married retired forest ranger Frank Dorchak in 1997.

She and Dorchak, director of the Northeast New York Chapter of the Salute Military Golf Association that helps wounded combat veterans learn golf skills, recently added a 10-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, Capt. Woody Morgan, to their family.

“We don’t have grandchildren, so that’s where he comes in,” she said.

Adjusting to retirement will take some getting used to, as will not seeing friends from the County Courthouse every day.

“It’s bittersweet,” she said of her departure Monday. “It’s a lot of years, and I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. But it’s a new day after today.”

She spent the weekend emptying 40 years of memories and paperwork out of her office.

“I enjoyed every single day, solving the problems of our constituents,” Murtagh said. “The government process can be confusing. There is a lot of paperwork and a lot of interpretations, and a lot of people have a hard time getting through the maze.”

Since announcing her retirement in September, Murtagh has said several times, “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.”

She said she was blessed to do what she loved for many years.

“I (was) not afraid to approach any task if I could help someone,” she said. “Some days, I did it well. Some days, it went the other way. 

"But it was all very rewarding.”

Email Denise A. Raymo: draymo@pressrepublican.com