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Greenport welcomes new village clerk

Earlier this summer, at the close of a lengthy, highly detailed Vision for Greenport meeting at the village cinema, Mayor Kevin Stuessi made an announcement that  was met with a sudden burst of thunderous applause from the audience.

He introduced the village’s newly appointed clerk as a “very special community member who is from one of the founding families of Greenport: Candace Hall.”

It was a turning point moment in Ms. Hall’s life and career. 

As she prepares to assume her new role later this month, Ms. Hall sat down with The Suffolk Times to talk about the long tradition of community service in her family, her goals in her new position and her unique journey to public office. For an hour this week, on the patio of First and South restaurant in the village, Ms. Hall’s warm personality and light-hearted, infectious laugh animated the conversation.

Ms. Hall said her family goes back seven generations in Greenport and the surrounding area. She is the granddaughter of a legendary local figure Delores Bertha Swann Shelby, affectionately known as “Bootsie,” who was born in Greenport in 1930 and grew up to raise 14 children, work in the Greenport School cafeteria and provide day care to dozens of families in the village. Ms. Swann Shelby herself was one of nine children, Ms. Hall said.

Asked how many Swann and Shelby relatives live in the area, Ms. Hall laughed and said there were probably “a hundred or more.”

“We’ll probably run into one while we’re sitting here,” she said with a smile.

Ms. Hall’s reputation and her familial commitment to community service has put her in line for a clerk position twice in three years.

In January 2021, she was recruited by Liz Gillooly, now a Southold Town Trustee, and Kathryn Casey Quigley, chairwoman of the Southold Town Democratic Committee and co-founder and co-director of the Peconic Community School, to run for Southold Town clerk.

“Those two women helped changed my life,” Ms. Hall said.

The incoming village clerk grew up in Greenport until roughly age 12, then moved with her mother, a nurse, to Washington, D.C., yet she returned to Greenport constantly.

“Even when I left here, I spent every summer here, every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every spring break. Bootsie was our homing device.”

Ms. Hall’s time in Washington, D.C., opened her eyes to the possibilities of a career in public service.

“I was able to see people who looked like me in elected office in D.C. It’s a very colorful place. It’s beautiful, [and] it made me think, ‘Why can’t I?’ ”

After 15 years in the nation’s capital, at age 27, Ms. Hall and her mother moved back to the North Fork seven years ago when her mother was diagnosed with three rare types of stomach cancer, which she survived following surgery at Stony Brook University Hospital.

She had fallen in love with teaching preschool when she took a job in D.C., but she couldn’t find a school locally that could provide her with a stable income.

“That was something that really, really intimidated me about moving home — access to having a job where I can take care of myself all year.” 

Ms. Hall said that despite her dedication to community service, she was hesitant about taking on Republican nominee Denis Noncarrow, the current Southold town clerk. For one thing, she would be the first Democratic candidate even nominated to run for the position since 1981.

“I’m young,” she told herself. “I want to live my life and I’m a good person and I can still advocate for people and do the things I’m passionate about without doing this.”

Yet Ms. Gillooly and Ms. Casey Quigley persisted, and eventually the latter appealed to two of Ms. Hall’s aunts.

“Kathryn reached out to some of my family: my Aunt Val [Shelby], one of chairs of the Anti-Bias Task Force and a former school board member, and my Aunt Bessie Swann. Her sister was the only other Black clerk before me in Greenport.”

Aunt Val leaned on her niece.

“You need to do this,” Ms. Hall said her aunt told her, so she put aside her fears and decided to run.

“I didn’t mind losing — I just really didn’t want him to wipe the floor with me,” she said, laughing at the memory.

When the final votes were tallied, she said she received 49% of the vote to Mr. Noncarrow’s 51%.

From there, Ms. Hall took a position as an administrator at Peconic Community School, which she described as a “magical place” and the best job she has ever had.

“I expected to be there for a long time,” she said this week. “It’s a beautiful, loving warm environment. It’s healed pieces of me that I didn’t even know needed healing.”

Earlier this summer, she was busy organizing the annual Greenport Basketball Tournament, a community tradition she co-chairs with relatives, when Mr. Stuessi reached out to ask her for a meeting. She said she had gotten to know him through his support for her campaign for Southold town clerk, and they remained friendly.

She said she had no idea what he wanted to discuss, but she made sure to bring her “checklist” of requests for village support for the basketball tournament.

Mr. Stuessi let her run through them without interruption. He asked her how she liked her job at Peconic Community School and she said she gushed about it.

Then the mayor paused, and looked at Ms. Hall.

“So, would you consider taking the clerk position, even though you just told me how much you love your job?”

She accepted the offer, and now, she said, she can’t wait to get started.

“It’s a really big opportunity for me,” she said. “I’m an incredibly organized person. I think you need to be that to be the clerk, because records retention is one of the biggest pieces of that job. Being detail-oriented is another thing I pride myself on, and that’s another big piece of that job. And customer service — it’s essentially customer service for our village government. And I have a ton of experience with that. To me, those skills are interchangeable.

“If you can take care of people, treat them with kindness, work through the issue with them, maintain your composure even when it’s tough — that is something that I can bring. I am a leader and I know that. I will be able to lead a team with kindness, with grace and be able to build a team that the village deserves.”

Ms. Hall  acknowledged, however, that she faces a steep learning curve.

“It’s a big job, I don’t want to come off as naive, but I’m a confident person. I can read the law. I can follow the law … And I’m going to be dealing with either legal documents or documents that must be handled with extreme care.”

Ms. Hall is also dedicated to fulfilling Mr. Stuessi’s campaign pledge to have the village clerk and other public-facing employees behave  more like a “hotel concierge” than government bureaucrats.

“I am very confident in my ability to spread joy,” she said. “I take pride in it. I’m a genuinely happy person. I think it’s important to treat people with kindness. It’s easy. It’s easier than the opposite. I think that’s something people will immediately feel when they come into Village Hall.

“I want them to feel kindness. It’s not always an ideal situation. People don’t want to pay the amount of money they have to pay in taxes when they come there, but we can treat them with kindness and make it an easier experience.

“If [Village Hall] feels hostile, you’re going to run into a lot of hostile people. ‘Let me try to work through this with you. I’ll do the best I can to help you.’ These are very simple things but you have to lead with that. It changes the whole dynamic.”

As she prepares to take on her new role, Ms. Hall said she’s also deeply aware of her own role models, Black women in leadership positions during her years in Washington, D.C.

“Representation is a word that I throw around a lot, because it’s something that changed my life, you know, being able to see all different people running things … ultimately, for little Black girls especially, it changes a lot about how you view the world,” she said. “You can tell somebody that you can be anything you want to be all day, but if they never see it in real life, you know, that’s more of a dream.

“So this is real to me, that I can do whatever I want to if I work hard enough, just like anybody else.”

Toward the end of the interview, a Black officer in a Southold Town police car drove by the restaurant patio along First Street and Ms. Hall giggled.

“That’s one of my cousins,” she said with a smile.

When a reporter expressed mild surprise at the accuracy of her prediction, she laughed again.

“Yeah, I saw another [cousin] over your shoulder, walking into the IGA a few minutes ago, but I didn’t want to be rude.”