Welcome to the blog series, “The Local Government Nerve Center” — all about the amazing and important work of clerks and recorders. Want to be a contributor? Learn more here.
By Scott Stauffer, CMC, City of Milwaukie, OR, City Recorder
We’ve heard the saying, “you have some mighty big shoes to fill…” It’s something you hear when you’ve given responsibility for a number of tasks that are new to you and have probably been done well in the past. As a receiver of these remarks, I have found myself wondering “what did I get myself into” and/or “oh goodie, high expectations, thank you very much (name of person who had this job before you).” But, what if YOU are the person making these remarks to YOURSELF? Well…
Milwaukie, like many municipalities, has a pioneer cemetery. Not that we do anything with it – a private non-profit group manages it.
But, the Milwaukie Pioneer Cemetery is a thing, like many other pioneer cemeteries across the country. It has become a place I like to visit since coming to work in the Office of the City Recorder (OCR) and, especially, since becoming the 24th person to serve as Recorder for the City of Milwaukie (Oregon, not Wisconsin; and yes, I’ve recorded the number of recorders Milwaukie has had).
I like visiting the cemetery because it’s quiet, being surrounded on three sides by an upscale country club, and because it’s in the wooded plot of headstones I encounter a legendary predecessor. No. 13 on the roster of Milwaukie’s recorders is Ellen J. “Nell” Roberts Martin, the last elected Town Recorder and the first appointed City Recorder. She served for a quarter-of-a-century (not an uncommon tenure in the clerk/recorder world), and came to be known as “Ms. Milwaukie” among several monikers. She was involved in every aspect of the community’s life—from City Hall, to the business association, to church and fraternal associations, and multiple historical societies—and she knew about everyone in the close-knit suburban community, located just six miles south of Downtown Portland, Oregon, along the Willamette River (shameless plug, check us out, we’re pretty sweet ).
She was in many ways the living embodiment of small-town America in the middle of the twentieth century, she was the quintessential recorder, and to me, the ideal public servant – engaged in the public’s business at City Hall and totally engaged in the community.
She left those of us who have come in her wake a large pair of mighty sensible peep-toe heels to fill. (There’s a great shot of Nell presenting City history to a group of elementary school kids, a rare photo of her smiling, and she’s wearing some very smart, sensible peep-toe shoes… hence the article title).
I completely and totally love my job. I wake-up every day eager to get to City Hall and do what I get to do on behalf of the 21,000-odd residents of “The Dogwood City of the West.” It’s a real pleasure, and the history nerd in me will add that it’s not just because of the chance to take good minutes, geek-out on records management best practices, support the Council, respond to public records requests, and provide transparent, honest, efficient, and smart government for today’s residents. Being City Recorder also means I get to delve into the past and explore (and shamelessly promote) the Milwaukie of yesterday – which BTW has a lot to do with the Milwaukie of today and tomorrow. I love history and good stories, and darn it I’ve found some pretty awesome gems, which happen to be centered around the lives of my recorder predecessors – including the meandering life story of Milwaukie’s marshal-turned-recorder-turned-police chief Jess Keck, but that’s a tale for another time.
All this to say, I’m lucky to do what I love and to have found the world of clerks/recorders. I’m also fortunate to follow such big acts – like Nell, Jess, and my mentor Pat DuVal, who served Milwaukie for over three decades.
Being recorder is about those essential nuts-and-bolts of government for sure, it’s about “other duties as assigned,” and it’s not always as glamorous as one might think (try keeping a straight face for 5 hours of land use hearings). It’s also about institutional memory and ensuring that the lessons, the voices, the minutes, and the actions of the past aren’t forgotten or overlooked. I know a city can’t root itself in the past completely. We move forward and we move on to (hopefully) bigger and better things. But if there’s one role I particularly relish, and a title I can’t say three-times-fast, it’s that of remembrancer (click here for the IIMC clerk history on remembering things).
Clerks and recorders play many important roles at City Hall. And, perhaps one of the least considered, yet critical, roles is that of remembrancer. Another topic, for another article, is the need to raise the profile of the clerk profession, to do a little recruitment as we feel the brunt of the baby boomer retirements that many other professions are facing. But, perhaps a sensible place to start, in part, is by finding those hidden stories in our minutes books. Slipping on those sensible peep-toe heels and appreciating those stories that have shaped our communities.