Holly Willford, in Council Chambers. DON RICKERS

To say Holly Willford has big shoes to fill is an understatement.

Longtime and respected Pelham Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato is set to retire at the end of May, and Willford, who has been apprenticing under Bozzato for the past three years, will take over the role.

Willford has nothing but effusive praise for her mentor.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have had Nancy setting the gold standard for me…she’s a tremendous leader,” said Willford. “I’ve learned so much from her. And frankly, reflecting back on my personal career, I’ve been surrounded by strong female leaders and role models. I’m just really excited, and looking forward to following in her legacy.”

The Town of Pelham appears to be a trendsetter in equal opportunity employment, as Willford noted that half the senior leadership team are women, including Barb Wiens in Planning and Development, Teresa Quinlin in Corporate Services, and Vickie vanRavenswaay in Recreation, Culture, and Wellness, plus Bozzato as Town Clerk—and many other women at the municipality serve in responsible roles.

Bozzato shared some kind words about her successor.

“Since joining the Town of Pelham in 2018, Holly has demonstrated consistent professionalism and integrity, and it has been a privilege to work together,” said Bozzato. “She will serve the corporation, the council, and the community of Pelham well in her new role, and she is well-equipped to take on this important office.”

CAO David Cribbs echoed Bozzato’s sentiments, saying, “Holly was the most deserving candidate, and we are very pleased that she will be stepping into the role. Her skills and knowledge fit the expectations and criteria of who we were looking for in this position, and we are happy to see such a qualified internal candidate rise to the top.”

“Without a doubt, Holly is the right person for the job,” said Mayor Marvin Junkin. “We’ve seen what Holly can do firsthand, clerking several meetings, and we are confident she will continue to be a great asset to the Town of Pelham.”

Willford was born and raised in Welland, but has family ties all over the region.

“My mom’s family grew up here in Pelham, and I still have lots of cousins and aunts and uncles living here. My dad grew up on a farm in Wainfleet.”

In fact, Willfords have lived on Willford Road in Wainfleet for 100 years, she said.

She attended Centennial in Welland for her high school years, and is a graduate of Niagara College’s law clerk program. Willford first worked for a couple of small, private practice law firms in St. Catharines and Toronto, then joined Peel Region as a member of its legal department. She did real estate and land development work there for seven years before coming to Pelham as Bozzato’s deputy clerk in 2018.

While at the Region of Peel, she studied part-time and earned an undergraduate degree from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.

A priority for Willford is to ensure that the Town is continually engaging the community.

“The pandemic has presented challenges for us as we work to be open, transparent, visible, and allowing for public participation,” said Willford. “COVID creates a very fluid situation, and it could be lingering for quite a while. We need to continue to make sure that residents feel comfortable and safe, especially when it involves coming out to vote.”

Willford is not daunted by the prospect of the upcoming municipal election in 2022, given her experience with the previous election in 2018, along with last year’s Ward 1 by-election. Mail-in ballots were instituted during the by-election, and Willford said “we are continually trying to modernize and bring new ideas and resources forward.”

She pointed to the Town’s use of the latest technology to connect with residents, including live-streaming of council and committee meetings. Willford noted that while watching public meetings online, people can participate live via email at [email protected] and make comments in real time which are read into the public record—a feature added during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Sometimes people come to our public meetings not thinking they are going to speak,” said Willford. “Then, while sitting in the gallery, they decide they want to say something.  I wanted to make sure every member of the public had the option to speak, even if they originally didn’t think they wanted to.”

Willford added that while email commenting is welcome during public meetings, it has not been implemented for regular council meetings.

Some people will not know that town clerks, through government statute, have the authority to officiate civil marriages in Ontario. Willford has already performed close to a dozen matrimonial ceremonies in recent years, in Council Chambers, at the Peace Park bandshell, and at Niagara wineries. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do,” she said.

Outside of her Town Hall duties, Willford enjoys travelling and camping, and doting on her two young nephews when social distancing conditions allow. She continues to take courses to upgrade her qualifications.

The Town has a posting for the deputy clerk position, Willford’s former role, on its website now.

“It’s just an incredible place to be,” said Willford.