Superhero clerks and why public records are their kryptonite

Consider this quote from the International Institute of Municipal Clerks website, “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, {to read more about Mary Hodek, click here} took notes and created the record of each of those days, and every 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, 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 President would have been. So much so that photos of her at town events were very common.

Superheroes need super tools

Today, many New England towns still have Town Meeting Day and clerks still demonstrate that same commitment. However, times have changed, 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 the 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 – but the responsibility to fulfill the requests lies with the clerk’s office.

Here are some 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 Washington State received about 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, 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.

Conquering kryptonite

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 strong commitment to their communities and to 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 clerks have provided our communities. With the right tools, they can see the complete picture of records they need to complete requests quickly and efficiently.

Next time, I’ll talk more about those tools and why they are essential.

Terri Jones

Terri Jones

Wondering what goes into a document management or ECM software deployment in government? Terri Jones, Hyland's government marketing portfolio manager, has your answer. In her 10 plus years in both state and local government, she's managed IT departments, implemented ECM strategies and written legislation and program policies. If that isn't enough to prove her IT expertise in government, she has also designed and implemented data systems and websites to manage compliance and funding in excess of $90 million annually. Have a question for her? Contact her at terri.jones@onbase.com.

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