This story by Corey McDonald first appeared in The Citizen on March 16.
Melissa Ross — or “Missy” — grew up in Manchester, going to town meeting day elections as a child and watching her father, Ferdinand “Nundy” Bongartz, moderate the whole affair.
Bongartz, a Vermont public service legend, spent 26 years as Manchester’s moderator and spent years on the town’s selectboard, planning commission and school board and served on the regional planning commission and the state environmental board.
The apple, in this case, does not fall very far from the tree. This month, Ross will wrap up a career spanning almost a quarter century, ending her 22-year tenure as Hinesburg’s longtime clerk and treasurer.
She is Hinesburg’s longest serving clerk in more than a century — since at least 1900. She’s also served on the board of the Hinesburg Nursery School, on the town’s planning commission and was part of the Hinesburg Land Trust when it first got underway.
“It is with both sadness and anticipation that I move forward to the next chapter of my life,” she said. “I’ve had the distinct pleasure of holding one of the most rewarding jobs in Vermont — a job steeped in history and tradition.”
Ross has been the “face of business” in Hinesburg, selectboard chair Merrily Lovell said, “a warm and friendly face, one who treats every person with special respect and interest in a way that empowers us all.”
For 22 years, she’s greeted everybody in town seeking out dog licenses or marriage licenses, people begrudgingly going to pay their taxes or their water bills and myriad other requests.
“I’m definitely going to miss it. I’ll miss my colleagues, and I will miss just seeing everybody on a regular basis,” she said. “It will be an adjustment for sure, but I’m lucky to have a lot of good friends in the community.”
The town clerk is the official in town that, in more ways than the town’s state representative or even the selectboard, is “a face to the community,” former Vermont Rep. Bill Lippert said previously, “the person in office that most people in the community interface with.”
It’s what she’ll miss the most, Ross said.
“People have just been really wonderful to get to know and no matter how small their request or problem might have been, it was the most satisfying thing,” she said. “I really, really enjoyed that.”
A native Vermont resident, Ross grew up in Manchester and then attended Middlebury College and later the University of Vermont, eventually settling in Hinesburg. After first serving as the town’s recreation coordinator, she moved on to the town clerk and town treasurer positions in October 2001.
Since then, she’s seen a lot of change — most recently, seeing COVID-19 completely disrupt Vermont’s town meeting day tradition.
Hinesburg, since the pandemic, has opted to use Australian ballot instead of the traditional in-person voice vote during annual meeting.
Hinesburg’s informational meeting “had fairly good attendance this year, considering there wasn’t voting on anything,” she said. “But I do think it is partly an equity issue, to allow people the opportunity to vote on the budget — people who may have difficulties attending a meeting. As our population ages, I think it’s good to give those people an opportunity to vote by ballot.”
The town is set to see even more change in the coming years, as the town’s village center is expected to grow and transform as hundreds of new housing units come down the regulatory pike.
There’s some anxiety there, for sure — impacts on traffic congestion on Route 116, for example — and as a town gets larger, it gets more and more difficult to maintain those local traditions that are unique to Vermont towns, she said.
“On the positive side, it can be a good thing to infuse the town with new people who bring a new enthusiasm to volunteer committees and are looking for an opportunity to get involved.”
“People will hopefully be out and outside and be able to chat with people. I think that’s a better form of growth to have … I hope that that will help us maintain that community feeling.”
Ross will be replaced by Heather Roberts, the town’s assistant town clerk and treasurer, who ran uncontested in this year’s election.
“As I pass the torch to the next town clerk and treasurer, I want to say thank you for your years of support, goodwill and good wishes for the future,” Ross said.