Recognizing Municipal Clerks For What They Really Are: The Backbone.

“One of the challenges of wearing so many hats, is that I love each and every one of them”

-Andrea Davis Pinkney

Town Clerks did WHAT in the meeting rooms?

In the earlier days of man, even further back than biblical times, there was a position in town that would carry the responsibilities of keeping state records, collecting taxes and fees, publishing documents, and overall civility within the governed area. Known as the “Reminder:”, or “Remembrancer”, they were heavily valued, and with the duties relying heavily on memory before the invention of paper, they were treasured. The Clerk’s position can be traced back to 1272 A.D., recollecting the discussions that occurred at previous meetings with the councilors.

During the Middle Ages, the “Clerk” as we know it today was created. In England, a Clerk was referred to as a scholar; one who was literate and able to perform the aforementioned tasks. Another, more distinguished, duty of the Clerk was to stand as a liaison between the council and the residents.

As colonizers gathered in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Clerk position was one of the first to be appointed. Their responsibilities were even more like what you’d see today: Keeping birth and death records, recording meetings, and tracking land and animal grants, among many other obligations. Back in the day, they were given peculiar tasks like sweeping, paying bounties, and selling seats. The 1600s is really when the title of “town clerk” began to show in town records.

What makes Clerks the backbone of the organization?

It’s not only the countless responsibilities that they perform in their department that make a clerk honorable, but it’s also the unseen dedication to continuous improvement. I’ve talked with many clerks who live in areas with a population range of 500 people to 50,000 people. Many of these clerks have a plan for the future of their department.

Decreasing the time it takes to process documents, improving the note-taking process for council meetings, and making sure that paperwork is organized for maximum efficiency are just a few of the things that clerks focus on. Being able to balance the immense workload and also the never-ending planning is what established Clerks as the backbone of an organization.

Should Clerks be involved in the comprehensive planning process?

Clerks are essential in the comprehensive planning process. Having their hands in so many different baskets allows them to approach the planning process with a more holistic view. Including the clerk’s department in the comprehensive plan demonstrates the desire to improve the functions of one of the most “customer-facing” positions in local government. Planning and Public Works Departments are obvious inclusions to the comprehensive plan and making sure the person(s) who is in charge of filing the paperwork on behalf of those departments seems like an efficient use of time and money.

Some things that could be included while making the Clerk Department part of the comprehensive plan are finding tools to increase the paperwork process, adding members to the staff in order to help things run smoother, and finding better internal communication methods so when it’s time to create the agenda, the clerk has a central location for items. On top of that, highlighting ways that each other department can work better with the clerk’s department will not only take frustration off of the clerk, but other department leads.

What does the future hold for municipal Clerks?

In the year 3000, Municipal Clerks will still be the foundation of a local government organization. From the people I talk with, I hear nothing but pure commitment to the role and responsibilities that they take on when entering the office. The difference between how clerks perform duties now and what they’ll be focused on in the future is that they’ll be able to focus more on the strategy. Automation and productivity tools are becoming increasingly obtainable and easy to use. With these modifications around paperwork and document processing, Municipal Clerks will start to become more aware of other age-old problems that were masked by the amount of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” processes.

What’s difficult is knowing when to start implementing certain changes in order to focus on bigger picture items. For the most part, clerks are very busy and work continues to flow; that’ll be the case for the foreseeable future. Being able to make digital transitions to things like document storage, permit processing, or payment collection are small steps that a Clerks office can take.

Resources for Clerks

When handling public records requests, agendas, minutes, permits, etc., it’s nice to know that there are other folks who have gone through transitions. That’s why it’s best to collaborate with neighboring clerks; which is why we’ve created our community pages for each state.

Over the last 3000 years, many organizations have been formed to assist clerks and provide them with the continued education that’s necessary for change. One of the best, and most recognized organizations is the International Institute of Municipal Clerks (IIMC). Through their site, you can find forms, publications, committees, and certifications. The Certified Municipal Clerk (CMC) title is prestigious and difficult to obtain. Check out the IIMC website to learn more about the organization and the certification!

Other resources that a Municipal Clerk can take advantage of are company websites. There are a number of companies out there that cater to Clerks, such as CivicPlus, Granicus, Accela, Municode, etc., and on their websites, they have success stories from individuals who were previously hesitant to make changes within the organizations. In these success stories, once these other clerks realized the impact that newer processes have on the agency as a whole, they share how it’s not as daunting as you might imagine.

Check out our resource page for Clerks to find more ways to evolve the position.

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