Patty Strauss loved her career in banking. But in 1997 Westport Bank & Trust — her longtime employer — was in the midst of a dizzying succession of mergers. The “hometown bank in a town of homes” felt less and less like home.
So when she saw heard that Westport Town Clerk Joan Hyde was retiring, Patty called Diane Goss Farrell.
The newly elected 1st Selectwoman phoned right back. “Am I overdrawn?” she worried.
“No!” Strauss replied. “I’m just letting you know: I want to apply for town clerk.”
“Then who’ll take care of my account?” Farrell asked.
Strauss got the job. Farrell got a new banker.
At the end of December – 23 years later — Patty Strauss retires. She’s overseen many changes. Technology has modernized many tasks. But at its core, she says, the town clerk is still in the business of customer service.
Connecticut law mentions several hundred town clerk duties. Strauss breaks them into 4 main categories:
- Recorder of land records. This includes all property transfers, liens, mortgages and releases, from Westport’s incorporation in 1835 to the present.
- Recorder of vital records: births, deaths, marriages, etc.
- Overseer of elections (federal, state and local). This covers petitions, nominations, financial filings and more.
- RTM clerk: secretary of the town’s legislative body.
“I have dozens of bosses,” Strauss notes. “Jim Marpe, the Connecticut Secretary of the State, the Department of Public Health, and 36 RTM members.
“I’m not the decision maker. I just make sure the paperwork is done correctly.”
Which is like saying Alex Trebek was just a guy who asked questions on TV.
Strauss just completed her last big project: her 6th presidential election. Her Westport tenure was bookended by the 2 that have drawn the most attention for the voting process: 2000 (hanging chads) and 2020 (mail-in ballots).
Thankfully, there has never been a whiff of controversy over any Westport (or Connecticut) votes.
To the surprise of many — from real estate regulars who relied on her for much of their work, to residents with random but gotta-have-an-answer queries — Strauss is not a native Westporter.
Raised in Maryland, with a degree in education from Radford College, she moved here after marriage. Her husband Ed’s family were longtime owners of the Depot Liquor Store.
Strauss opened WB&T’s Georgetown office. She worked in the Saugatuck and Greens Farms branches too, before moving to downtown headquarters (now Patagonia).
That’s how she knew so many Westporters — and all about mortgages and land record searches too. The transition to Town Hall was easy.
Farrell valued Strauss’ customer services skills. “People need to be treated well,” the 1st selectwoman told the new town clerk.
That’s still the case. Some of the hometown hominess is gone — a cheerful operator no longer personally transfers each call to the appropriate department, and patrons can get answers to many questions from the town website, not an actual human being — but for many Strauss is still the face of Westport government.
During her tenure, records have become more accessible. She once spent most of her days in an enormous vault. Paperwork from 1835 on — births, land records, maps, elections, RTM minutes, burial permits — is still there.
But gone are the days when people had to make appointments to walk in and search (8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. only, please!). Now 17 different collections are online.
Strauss does it all with a fulltime staff of 4, and 1 part-time assistant. She hires extra help during busy seasons, like elections and springtime (dog licenses).
The staff follows Strauss’ philosophy of treating everyone promptly, with courtesy, and alike — no favors to the famous. However, she says, after years of friendly banter with Paul Newman, one day they asked for a photo with him. He put his arms around the women.
It’s still there, on the wall.
When COVID hit last March, Town Hall closed. But, Strauss notes, “you can’t swear someone in, issue a marriage license or notarize a signature on Zoom.”
The Town Clerk’s office relocated to a picnic table behind the building. Bird droppings from a nearby maple tree intruded, so now there’s a tent. Town Hall will reopen soon, but Strauss and her staff never stopped seeing people face to face. That goes with the gig.
The gig ends soon for Patty Strauss. She and her husband are moving to Wilmington, North Carolina.
Like every other property transaction, the closing will be recorded in the town clerk’s office. It’s a routine — yet vital — task.
For 23 years Patty Strauss handled that job, and so many others. Countless Westporters have been helped by her organizational skills, attention to detail, and knowledge of (and love for) our town.