Votes Count For Hegarty

November 22, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Even with the seemingly never-ending negative campaign ads that flooded the airwaves for much of the year, City Clerk Terri Hegarty emerged from the mid-term election invigorated and feeling like a winner.

At 53 percent, city voter turnout was the highest in three decades for a gubernatorial contest, and no major equipment malfunctions or excruciatingly long lines greeted voters two weeks ago at city precincts.

“I’m pumped about election day,” she told the Business Journal on the eve of the midterm election.

The city’s charming clerk, who directed the voting process, is a third-generation city employee. Her grandfather, Fred Voss, and her father, Hugh Voss, both retired from the city. Hegarty said her dad, a former firefighter who passed away earlier this year, was most responsible for where she is today. Although she remains very grateful for her father’s action, she also joked that she likely began her career path sooner than she actually wanted to.

“I probably was out of high school only two weeks and thinking that I was on summer break. But my dad brought home one of those yellow city application forms and he said, ‘Here, honey, fill this out. They need a stenographer at the city.’ So I filled out that city application form and I was hired at age 18,” said Hegarty.

“That was my biggest career break. Dad brought home that yellow application form like we still have today and I started my career with the city.”

Hegarty is completing her 29th year with the city. She became city clerk on Valentine’s Day in 1995 after spending 10 years in the city attorney’s office. While she worked with the city’s legal staff, Hegarty took eight years’ worth of night classes at Aquinas College to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1994. But just a few months after she graduated and a few months before she replaced retiring City Clerk Sandy Wright, her husband and the father of her two sons, Bob Jester, died.

“The timing worked out well because I really, personally and professionally, needed a promotion,” she said of becoming the city’s clerk. “It was just one of those things where all the stars lined up and they took a risk and hired me, which was great for my family.”

Her father had retired from the fire department by then, but was delivering flowers for Kennedy Floral. He wanted to be at his daughter’s swearing-in ceremony, so the florist only gave him downtown deliveries for that Valentine’s Day so he could be at City Hall for the proud moment. And a moment was about all he had that busy day.

“He watched me get sworn in, which took all of two or three minutes. When I sat down he looked at me and pointed to his watch, like he had to go. So he got up and left and I smiled. My mom said she was so sorry that he left, but I told her that was exactly what I wanted him to do,” she said.

“He had a job to do and he did it. And that’s where we learned our work ethic.”

Hegarty’s grandfather was a chemist in the city’s water department and a pioneer of sorts. He was on the job 50 years ago when city commissioners added fluoride to the water supply. That was an unpopular decision for many city residents back then who thought the chemical was going to kill people. It was also a decision that brought him some personal anguish.

“I remember reading through his personnel file years and years ago. It talked about the pressures of the job, because there was a lot of controversy over putting that fluoride in our water. We were the first in the country to do it. At one point, he asked for a demotion because the pressure was so great. So when he retired, he retired at a lower level,” she said.

Hegarty, of course, is an active member of the state and county clerks associations. But she also serves on the Council of Election Officials, a board that consists of municipal and county clerks that deals with state legislative issues, and has a seat on the Board of Advisors to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. U.S. Congressman Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, appointed her to that post, a move that made Hegarty the nation’s sole city clerk serving as an adviser on the federal panel.

“That’s pretty neat, because there are only 37 board members in the entire country and I’m the only city clerk on it. This body is the body that came out of the 2000 election debacle of Florida,” she said.

“Serving on this board, I think, has put me right there where I can hopefully have an impact in some way. So I’m really excited about it.”

Hegarty won a USEAC grant for the last election that allowed her to staff the precincts with college students armed with laptop computers to answer any questions that registered voters might have about the voting process. Grand Rapids was one of only three cities in the county to receive the $15,000 grant. Grand Rapids Community College got $10,000 to train the students; the city used the remaining monies to rent the computers.

“I saw a presentation on a college-worker program and I ran up to them afterwards and said ‘I really, really want to do this.’ And she said, ‘Hey, I need a pilot.’ I applied for the grant in 2004 and didn’t get the money. But now we’ve got the laptops and we’ve got the college students,” she said.

Hegarty also has one of the most well-known and respected members of the community as her husband: retired Grand Rapids Police Chief William Hegarty.

When she isn’t working, Hegarty runs — not for office, but for exercise. Earlier this year, she kept a promise that she made to her first husband and completed the Fifth Third River Bank Run for the first time.

“I really enjoy jogging,” she said.

As for her job, Hegarty said the best part of being city clerk is that the position allows her to interact with people on a number of issues, including licensing businesses and issuing passports. Her absolute favorite aspect, though, is visiting high schools to talk to students about the voting process and then registering those who are old enough.

“That is my favorite part: engaging the young people. I have actually had to sit in my car afterwards a couple of times and think, ‘This is such a great feeling,” said Hegarty.

She especially remembered a big, tough-looking young man, who admitted to being a convicted felon, asking her whether he could vote. Because he had served his time, she told him he could and he decided to register.

“It took him a long time to fill out the form. And as big and tough and as strong as he looked, I gave him the oath and I handed him this little sticker that said, ‘I registered to vote today’ with a little flag on it. He put that right on his chest and he was so proud. I got back to my car and thought, ‘Boy, I love my job. Where could you get a good feeling like that?’”

As for her immediate future, Hegarty said she was going to continue her effort to gain the trust of voters in the aftermath of the past two presidential elections in Florida and Ohio.

“That is the thing that is out there — a lot of distrust — and I really want to work toward building trust. I want people to have confidence that the equipment works and the results are accurate,” she said. “I think the one thing that I’m going to really strive for is to gain their trust.”    

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