The City Clerk Ain’t Just a Secretary

Posted on March 29, 2018

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 Lucinda Williams, MMC, City Clerk, City of Fullerton, CA, Twitter | Email

Wikipedia says “The duties of a municipal clerk vary even more than their titles. Particularly in the United States, it is difficult to fully describe a clerk’s duties, because there are hundreds of different jobs a clerk may fulfill. In some U.S. states, there are provisions in the state constitutions delineating the clerk’s duties, but in other states, each municipality decides for itself what role the clerk plays, or even, if there need be a clerk at all.”
In 2010, undaunted by Wikipedia’s assertion that it is difficult to fully describe a clerk’s duties, the City Clerk’s Association of California developed an elevator speech to describe the role of the City Clerk.  The elevator speech stated:
“The City Clerk is the local official who administers democratic processes such as elections, access to city records, and all legislative actions ensuring transparency to the public.  The City Clerk acts as a compliance officer for federal, state, and local statutes including the Political Reform Act, the Brown Act, and the Public Records Act.  The City Clerk manages public inquiries and relationships and arranges for ceremonial and official functions.”   
That speech is well and good, unless you’re like me and have, at most, a two-story elevator ride at my City Hall. By the time I pulled out my handy pocket-sized version of that speech to rattle off to my fellow elevator passengers, the ride would be over and they would be out the door.
So I had to condense my elevator speech into one quick sentence. Now, my elevator conversation often goes something like:

Fellow passenger: “Do you work for the City?”

Me:  “Why yes, I do. I am the City Clerk.”

Fellow passenger: “Really? What does the City Clerk do?”

Me: “The City Clerk is the equivalent to the Secretary of State at the municipal level.”

Fellow passenger: “Well that sounds like a really interesting job. You have a great day.”

At which point, the fellow rider has arrived at their destination and exits with a new appreciation for the services provided for the city clerk.
When my elevator ride is more than one floor, I’ll add, “My position is akin to the state-level kind of Secretary of State.” Just to clarify that my position isn’t like the federal-level-keep-a-server-in-the-bathroom-or-constantly-under-threat-of-being-fired-by-POTUS kind of Secretary of State.
Here’s a comparison of the similarities between the City Clerk’s role and the Secretary of State (the state-level kind of secretary of state) duties:

Secretary of State City Clerk
  • State’s chief elections official
  • Local elections official
  • Administers Uniform Commercial Code / contract
  • Keeper of municipal code
  • Processes contracts for legislative body
  • Chartering businesses
  • Business licensing / business registration (in some states / cities)
  • Repository of official records
  • Keeper of city records
  • Campaign finance duties
  • Local campaign finance duties
  • Regulates notaries public / grants licenses
  • Provides notary public services
  • Lobbyist reporting
  • Files lobbyist report with state

Drilling down, a City Clerk’s duties fall into three overarching categories:

  • Elections
  • Records
  • City council support (or what I affectionately call the “everything else” category)

Elections: City clerks are the local elections official for their city. Some city clerks manage the election process which includes processing candidates, setting up polling places, recruiting poll workers and counting the ballots. Some city clerks process candidate nominations and ballot measures for their cities but consolidate their elections (fancy way of saying they contract with the county elections office to print the ballots, set up polling places, count the ballots, etc. since the county often runs an election at the same time as the city election). The city clerk must understand state and federal election and campaign finance regulations.
Public Records: The city clerk is traditionally the official keeper of city records which puts them on the front line for the city’s transparency initiatives. The city clerk must understand records management practices, understand his or her state and local record keeping regulations, and, perhaps most importantly, know and comply with state-specific public records or freedom of information laws.
City Council Support: Most city clerks serve as the secretary to the City Council, preparing City Council meeting agendas and materials, recording meeting minutes and maintaining the legislative history (ordinances, resolutions, etc.) of the City Council. In addition, while duties vary by state and locality, City Clerks may also…..
(*takes a deep breath*):
keep the municipal code up to date, manage council member appointments to city boards and commissions, coordinate public notices and advertising, provide notary services, manage the web site, are keepers of the city seal and the copyright of the seal, manage budget and personnel issues, implement new software, coordinate the production and broadcast of city council meeting, manage contracts, process city council mail, prepare certificates, proclamations and commendations, collect statements of economic interest from staff, committee members and council members, issue ABC licenses, gather insurance for massage businesses, issue business licenses, manage social media accounts, provide passport services, track ethics training for council members and commissioners, track harassment prevention training for council members and commissioners, run for office themselves (when an elected city clerk), issue marriage licenses, coordinate bids and bid openings, process claims against the city, issue dog licenses, accept subpoenas and summons, oversee the cemetery district, manage vital records, must have knowledge of open meeting rules, political reform acts, rules governing committee and commission appointments and a host of other laws and regulations specific to the “everything else” duties that fall under the specific City Clerk’s office and much, much, much, much more
In summary, don’t let the title fool you – the City Clerk plays a crucial role in government and the scope of the profession extends far beyond the “secretary” stereotype.
I would need a cross-country trip, not an elevator speech, to tell the whole story of the city clerk. Like most City Clerks, I am passionate about the profession. I can easily go into full wonk-mode and ramble about the duties and nuances of this or that regulation. I promise to only give my extended speech to a willing seatmate when the in-flight movie is something they’ve already seen, they’ve ran out of reading material, and they have no battery life in their iPad, laptop and phone.

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