Upstate Marriage License Refusenik Quits After Tense Years

Upstate Marriage License Refusenik Quits After Tense Years

An upstate New York town clerk who became a hero among right wingers opposed to same-sex marriage after she refused to issue a wedding license to a lesbian couple in 2011 quietly left her job in 2017 amid tensions with her colleagues in town government that prompted her to file a discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

“A personnel issue was briefly discussed before a decision was made to go into Executive Session at 7:45 pm,” the minutes of the September 2017 Ledyard town board meeting read. The board voted five-to-0 to go into executive session and then “The Town Board ended the Executive Session at 8:01. The Town Clerk, Rose Marie Belforti left the meeting at 8:02. Tiffany Potter, Deputy Clerk was called up to the table to sit with the Town Board.”

In a five-to-0 vote, the board “voted to approve payment for Deputy Clerk Tiffany Potter and to send her information to the [Cayuga County] Civil Service Dept.”

That meeting was the last that Belforti attended in her official capacity, though she continued to perform other responsibilities of her office.

Belforti, who was first elected as town clerk in the Fingers Lakes area community in 2002, stayed in her job until after the November 2017 election, when Jamie Bailey was elected Ledyard’s town clerk, and only then did Belforti retire. She and her husband, Tim Wallbridge, moved to Fredericksburg, Texas.

Belforti gained national prominence in 2011 when she cited her religious beliefs to deny a lesbian couple a marriage license. Belforti chose to remain in her job, but no longer sign marriage licenses or perform weddings. She hired a deputy to perform that part of her job on an as-needed basis, though Gay City News reported in 2014 that Belforti issued marriage licenses to two heterosexual couples after pledging to stop issuing such licenses.

After New York enacted marriage for same sex couples in 2011, two other town clerks resigned to avoid having to sign licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples and a third stopped performing weddings, but continued to sign licenses. There are 933 town clerks in the state.

As the town clerk, Belforti was responsible for keeping the minutes of town board meetings. She documented her conflicts with other members of the Ledyard government dating back to at least 2014 in the minutes and posted those minutes on Ledyard’s website. In at least one instance, she posted minutes on the website that had not been approved by the town board.

“I think things tended to deteriorate in more recent years,” Jim Frisch, who has served on the town board for 23 years, told Gay City News. “The town board is in no position to dictate how the clerk runs their office… Hopefully, there is a good working relationship. It was frequently the case that we were at loggerheads, but we have to deal with what the people give us.”

The minutes show that deterioration. In 2014, the Ledyard website, which was administered by the Cayuga County government, crashed and a great deal of Ledyard’s data was lost. It took two to three months to restore the site and Belforti resisted taking on the responsibility for running it.

In the March 2015 town meeting minutes, she told the board that the “maintenance of the Town of Ledyard website may be better served by someone who has the time to maintain it. She requested that the Board consider finding a volunteer who might have the interest and the time.”

In October 2015, Belforti requested that the town clerk position be given a raise. A $500 increase in the clerk’s base salary was approved in November for the next fiscal year by a three-to-two vote, but Belforti did not see that raise in her check until November 2016, she wrote in the minutes from that month. Belforti complained that her job responsibilities had grown while her pay had not. In 2015, she had declined to perform clerk duties for the Ledyard planning board because she was not being paid for that work. She was told that the raise was withheld because the website had not been updated or it was due to an accounting error, the minutes say.

“It just seemed like she wanted full-time pay for a part-time job and that just wasn’t going to happen,” Mark Jordan, a town board member and the town supervisor, told Gay City News.

The discussion about Belforti’s pay and her responsibilities in the November 2016 minutes is lengthy, with Belforti and her husband contributing much of the content. When the town board saw those minutes in December 2016, some members objected. John Binns, a board member, “suggested taking out opinion” and they were not approved. Belforti posted the unapproved minutes on the town’s website.

At the February 2017 town board meeting, Jordan reported that he had received the complaint that Belforti made to the EEOC and he “read off the charge against the Town of Ledyard filed by Town Clerk Rose Marie Belforti” as Belforti recorded the minutes of that meeting.

“That complaint was based on gender harassment in the workplace,” Belforti wrote in an email to Gay City News. “It had nothing to do with my refusal to sign same sex marriage apps. It was based on good old boy harassment.”

Jordan has a different view.

“She did not get a raise for the next year in our town budget and she did not deserve a raise because she was the only one who got a raise the year before,” he told Gay City News. “The basis of her complaint was she was the only woman who didn’t get a raise. They investigated it and closed it. They sent us back a memo saying there was no basis for her complaint.”

The town board’s engagement with Belforti did not end with her retirement. In March of this year, Bailey reported to the town board that she had unearthed two credit cards carrying Belforti’s name and the town’s name. One of those cards had “a forwarding address to the state of Texas,” according to the March 2018 minutes.

In April, Bailey reported that one card had already been cancelled and it had “No transactions and zero balance.” The town has no records on the second card to suggest that town funds were used to pay its charges, Bailey told Gay City News. The town never contacted Belforti about the cards.

“No one contacted me,” she wrote in an email. “No fraud, I can guarantee that.”