After nearly four decades, the person most often seen as the face of local government here — Town Clerk Dale S. Holberton — has announced she will retire in February.
“As someone who has lived by deadlines for so many years, I realize that time waits for no one, and I am excited about my retirement and looking forward to moving on to my next chapter,” she wrote told Town Manager Robert C. Zarnetske in a letter November 1 about her plans to leave.
Holberton has been with the town for 39 years, serving as town clerk except for seven years at the beginning of her career. She started as a clerk doing business licensing and probate matters, then quickly became deputy town clerk and then in 1987 took on her current duties.
“She puts the interest of the public first - always,” Zarnetske said in an interview after receiving the letter. “Dale displays the same characteristics of success I’ve seen at the state and federal level - she willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done,” added Zarnetske, who started working with her in 2018 after joining town government.
Working with citizens and often explaining complex - and confusing -- state or town rules and regulations is part of the job of local government officials.
“One of the things Dale does well is makes sure the rules are the tools. She helps people understand them and how to accomplish what they need to do,” he said.
“The other attribute I find that is tremendously endearing is that she’s warm. She understands what she does is important, especially to those coming in on probate matters after a family member has died. She does that with dignity and humanity.”
She’s also a beacon around the state as a mentor, said Carol Wordell, president of the Rhode Island Town and City Clerks Association. Holberton has been coached scores of newly installed town clerks throughout Rhode Island, she explained.
“When I became town clerk 30 years ago, she was the first person I reached out to. I knew she could tell me how this job gets done in the best possible way,” said Wordell, Little Compton’s town clerk. “She has been a wonderful asset to the association over the years and will be missed.”
In South Kingstown, Holberton is praised for her innovative solutions to problems, helpful to anyone who walks in her office as well as being a caring supervisor and tireless worker who would return after hours to fulfill her duties as clerk at the town council’s evening meetings.
Abel G. Collins, town council president, said, “It’s impossible to quantify what the town will be losing with the retirement of Dale Holberton. For many who come into the town hall, she has been the warm and welcoming face of the town to the public.”
He said that “her deep institutional memory has been a great resource to us on the council whenever we have a question about how we ended up where we are on any given issue.” He also pointed out that she has been a steady voice of reason, setting an example for the rest of the town’s municipal staff.
“I have immense admiration for her years of work helping the town to honor its veterans, in addition to recognizing other residents for their good deeds,” he noted.
Chris Little, a long-time resident and town council member from 1992 to 1996, praised her for her professionalism and efficiency.
“(It was) always flavored with humor and understanding, derived from taking the time to know each of us. She is a role model for the type of person we want in our government and we have been very fortunate that she has served us for so long.”
Keeping the council on track with research, advice, agendas, meetings and more is only part of her job.
Call her office and the telephone menu will spit out many other roles of critical recordkeeping and assistance. This is part of her daily job to oversee that many moving parts work together when laws, regulations, ordinances and policies require attention to detail and filing different kinds of detailed paperwork with the town.
The menu includes canvassing, probate matters, land evidence and records and vital statistics. Each touches the lives of nearly every citizen in the town at one point or another -- and often multiple times. Even town beach permits come through her office.
Looking back over the years, she said that she’s most grateful for meeting the hundreds of people, including lawyers, business owners, contractors, bereaved families and other citizens who walked through the first-floor doors of her office in Town Hall on High Street.
“I am going to miss the people, no doubt about that,” she said. Town Manager Zarnetske doesn’t doubt it either. He said they will miss her, too.
He said that he will be consulting with the town council to determine the next steps in finding a replacement for her.
“It’s time,” Holberton said wistfully. “Thirty-nine years is a long time. I’ve worked a long time. I want to do other things now.”