Retiring Keith Herkalo recalls Plattsburgh city clerk career

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Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2014 2:28 am

When Keith Herkalo applied for the position of city clerk in 1991, it had been vacated a year and a half.

“Clyde (Rabideau) had himself appointed on paper as the acting city clerk so he could sign documents,” said Herkalo, who officially retires on Feb. 28. “But there was no clerk. 

“It was wild.”

Prior to this, Herkalo had approached then-council member Rabideau about Compost Plant breakdowns, and a relationship formed. When Rabideau ran for mayor, Herkalo worked on his campaign. After Rabideau was elected as mayor, he suggested Herkalo submit an application for the clerk slot.

“I’m coming in with this monster resume from Washington, D.C.,” Herkalo said. “I had to scale it down because nobody understood what I did.”

His application met with rejection upon rejection by Civil Service. His acceptance coincided with the “Big Tax Revolt” when city taxes were going up 20 percent.

“The council that was here, with the exception of Gary Walker, every one of them was thrown out of office in the election because of that tax increase. That’s when Mark Dame came in, Don Kasprzak, Doc Heins; that whole group came in as one. 

“There was a knock-down drag-out situation. And it lasted for months. Rabideau had the selection from Civil Service, and he decided to appoint me. 

“These guys went nuts.”

VALUABLE RESOURCE

Herkalo was branded Rabideau’s “handpicked man.” 

Within Civil Service, he is a strange breed, but that was decided by the 1902 City Charter. After an appointment is made, the candidate, a city resident, is provisional until passing a test. Then after a probationary period, the candidate becomes a career civil servant.

“So mayors and councils can come and go, but the clerk still remains and that’s a kind of a good thing because there’s a corporeal knowledge,” Herkalo said. “Once you get used to everything and you know where all the information is, you become a valuable resource.”

He started at the tail end of Mayor Carlton Rennell’s tenure and witnessed that of Rabideau, Dan Stewart, Jack Stewart, Donald Kasprzak and now James Calnon. 

NO COMPUTERS

When Herkalo entered the building designed by noted architect John Russell Pope, there were no computers but lots of pencils and huge typewriters.

The Clerk’s Office processes birth, death and marriage records, licensing fees, Freedom of Information requests and much more.

“I describe it as all the things that nobody else wants to do.”

Besides computers, the biggest change he has witnessed was moving City Court out of City Hall and the renovation of the auditorium, which is used for meetings, performances, weddings and proms.

Herkalo prepped himself by reading every set of the city’s minutes from 1815 forward.

“You get all that crap in your head, and someone asks you a question, you remember seeing it,” he said. “I wanted to know where the city came from and how it got to where it is. 

“If I look at my job as being a source of information, and the mayor comes to me and asks me a question, I don’t necessarily have to know the answer, but I need to know where it is.”

BATTLE FOR BIRTH CERTIFICATE

At the counter, he has assisted people grieving for a loved one and the irate.

A Korean and Vietnam war veteran didn’t have a birth certificate and would lose his medical benefits until he could produce one because of conflicting birth dates.

After a two-and-a-half year search, Herkalo discovered the man came here via the Orphan Train. As a foundling, the state was responsible for issuing a birth certificate.

“They didn’t do it. I got a power of attorney and talked to Vital Records in Albany. I said, ‘You are responsible for filing a delayed birth certificate for this gentleman.’ 

“He was in late 80s. He finally gets a birth certificate.”

PIKE’S CANTONMENT

Always one with a plan, Herkalo and his wife, Dr. Joy A. Demarse, a retired educator, are renovating their Peru retirement home.

He will “play in the woods,” specifically those containing the War of 1812 American military camp called Pike’s Cantonment. In his second semester at the University of Leicester, Herkalo is majoring in archaeology. 

“Finding where Pike’s Cantonment was absolutely the most important piece of information in the land battle ever because it proves where the British were when they crossed the river,” he said. 

“It proves the movement of the land troops and the timing, and it tells the whole story.”

DOCUMENTS SPEAK

His mentor, Dr. Allan Everest, professor/historian/author, died in 1997.

“He wasn’t able to finish his work,” Herkalo said. “I went to see him at his house a couple of times. The last time I saw him; he pointed his finger right at me and said, ‘You let the documents speak for themselves.’”

After the “Battles of Plattsburgh: September 11, 1814,” Herkalo may have another book in him about the cantonment.

“It’s totally undisturbed,” he said. “There’s nothing underneath it. There’s nothing on top of it. Six inches down, whatever they dropped in 30 inches of snow is there today. 

“Amazing story. It’s like taking a picture of what the campsite was like in 1813.”

Email Robin Caudell:rcaudell@pressrepublican.com