By Terri Jones, industry marketing manager for government, OnBase, by Hyland.
Consider this quote from the International Institute of Municipal Clerks' website story titled “The History of Clerks”:
"Over the years, Municipal Clerks have become the hub of government, the direct link between the inhabitants of their communities and their governments. The Clerk is the historian of the community, for the entire recorded history of the town (city) and its people, is in his or her care."
I agree. I grew up in a small town in Vermont where kids had the day off for Town Meeting Day, and a significant number of town residents turned out to go over the budget. Mary Hodek, the longest-serving clerk in Vermont history, took notes and created the record of each of those days, and all of the town selectmen’s meetings. She signed my birth certificate and was still there when I went back to the town hall after I graduated from college to get another copy.
Hodek’s time is the epitome of service and continuity and shows unquestionable commitment to my town and her duties. If you search her name, you will see entry after entry with her name, writing the history of my town and its inhabitants.
Hodek was a superhero, as important and as recognized in my town as the U.S. president. So much so, that photos of her at town events were common.
Superheroes Need Super Tools
Today, many New England towns still have Town Meeting Day, and clerks still demonstrate that same commitment. Times have changed, however, and public trust in government has declined and clerks find themselves in the middle of this downward trend through no fault of their own.
One of the most contentious areas is public records requests. In most jurisdictions, clerks are the keepers of the records—from meeting agendas, minutes and votes, to vital records, to licenses and other documents. As requests come in, clerks must review them, contact staff holding the requested documents, redact sensitive information, and then package and send them to the requestors.
The challenge for clerks is not that they waver in commitment to these requests. It’s that so much of what they are responsible for is out of their hands. The obligation to provide public documents and fulfill public records requests is one that spans many departments. The responsibility to fulfill the requests lies with the clerk’s office.
Here are reasons why that can be kryptonite to our superhero clerks:
Members of the staff in your organization create and manage items that are or could be public records. This means that while clerks are the custodians of the records, others can and do lose or destroy records that might be the subject of a request.
Records are not in a central location. Searching for documents not issued by the clerk’s office can be time-consuming. In fact, local governments in the state of Washington received some 250,000 public records requests, and the time and cost involved in meeting those requests was more than $60 million according to a recent study by the state. Those costs are directly tied to the time it takes to find, copy and mail documents.
The longer it takes to fulfill a request, the more distrust grows. Having files in separate locations or systems that are managed by many hands with no comprehensive search capability means that fulfilling requests can take a long time. Delays lead to questions about what is being hidden or destroyed.
Some communities face huge numbers of requests when contentious issues arise, with different sides hoping to slow down the consideration while staff scrambles to fulfill requests for thousands of pages. The situation is common enough that some states are exploring legislation to limit what they call nuisance requests, recognizing that clerks are overwhelmed at times and that communities cannot recoup the lost staff time and costs.
This is a difficult situation that clerks should not have to deal with. In my mind, Mary Hodek was a superhero, and I have met many clerks who show a strong commitment to their communities and the long tradition of their profession.
It’s time for clerks to have the tools they need—like automated public records requests—to respond to today’s trends. And those tools need to build on the long service that clerks have provided local governments. With the right tools, they can see the complete picture of the records they need in order to complete requests quickly and efficiently.
Hyland is a longstanding ICMA strategic partner and creator of information management and content services platform for governments of all sizes.
Why Records Management Matters. In this 2007 PM magazine article, the importance of records management is explored and why local governments should care about it. Leading practices for records management also are included.
The Digital Solution. In another PM article from 2015, the focus is on the transition that one New Hampshire town went through when it switched from paper to electronic records.
The Top Five Things to Know About the Municipal Clerk Position. This 2014 PM article takes in-depth look at the municipal clerk position.