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Clerks: The Unsung Hero of Local Government?

Every Fourth of July, like many other towns across this country, my town of Alameda, Calif., celebrates our independence and the birth of our republic with a parade. While parade groups vary slightly each year, one constant are the local elected officials waving from classic convertibles as representatives of our democracy. However, this Fourth of July, we might consider recognizing someone you are unlikely to see in your local city holiday parade: the local city and/or county clerk.

Most people have heard of a municipal clerk, although like me (before I started at Granicus), it’s likely their only interaction with clerks was limited to getting a marriage license or passport. The majority of clerks I’ve met are humble public servants, happy to stay out of parades; however, it’s time we recognize how critical they are to our democracy.

According to the California Clerks Association website, the responsibilities of a city clerk can be grouped under three headings: Elections Official, Legislative Administrator, and Records Manager.[1]  In other words, they protect the most fundamental aspects of representative governance:

  • Election Official: Ensure the legitimacy of candidates running for office; they oversee the entire election process from voter registration, to tallying outcomes.
  • Legislative Administrator: Lay the groundwork for effective local governance by organizing and recording the outcomes of public city council meetings.
  • Records Manager: Record and distribute decisions from city council meetings to ensure vital city services are carried out, and the public knows what decisions are being made on their behalf with their tax dollars.

To underscore the importance of their role, the municipal clerk is the oldest of public servants in local government, along with the tax collector. [2] Preceding democracy, the clerk and tax collector played a key role in ancient Athens. They served as administrators for the King throughout the Middle Ages and fostered the return of democracy in the English towns that started democracy’s rebirth. In the United States, they arrived with the pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Imagine how quickly our society would fall apart without someone ensuring the legitimacy of our elections, properly preparing our leaders with accurate and timely information, or keeping reliable records of council decisions.

So this Fourth of July, take a moment to remember the importance of our city/county clerks — their role is more vital than ever and they deserve to be celebrated.

[1] CCAC http://www.californiacityclerks.org/what-is-a-city-clerk
[2] http://www.iimc.com/DocumentCenter/Home/View/178