City Clerks:Keeping Up With the Times
May 01, 2018 07:47PM ● Published by Makayla Gay
By Reba Hull Campbell
The position of city clerk is the only municipal staff role that is required by state law, regardless of a municipality’s size or form of government. All 271 cities and towns in the state must have a clerk.
And while the title “clerk” may conjure up an outdated vision of an old style secretary, nothing could be further from the reality in today’s complex world of local government. Municipal clerks play a critical and varied role to support the mayor, city council, and city manager or administrator.
The clerk’s responsibilities under state law include giving notice of meetings to council members and the public, keeping minutes of its proceedings, and performing other duties as assigned by council. A combined municipal clerk and finance officer role, referred as clerk/treasurer, is common in small to midsize cities. In larger cities, a standalone municipal clerk position usually exists.
Regardless of city size, clerks have seen their roles and responsibilities keep pace with changing times. The state’s only professional organization serving city clerks has played a critical training role as the clerk role has expanded over the years. The South Carolina Municipal Finance Officers and Clerk Treasurers Association, an affiliate organization of the Municipal Association of SC, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
With more than 250 members statewide, MFOCTA trains clerks and clerk/treasurers on the complexities of running a local government.
“The position of city clerk has grown from a secretarial position to one that is an integral part of a city’s management team,” said Sherron Skipper, municipal clerk for the City of Hartsville, and a past president of MFOCTA.
MFOCTA’s current president, Orangeburg City Clerk Carrie Johnson, said, “Clerk duties are no longer limited to just council meetings and minutes. You have to be aware of voting laws and regulations, what can and cannot be done at council meetings, as well as other duties.”
Technology has also played a big role in the responsibilities of today’s clerks.
“It has gone from totally paper records to mostly digital with some paper still for historic originals,” said Skipper.
The soft skills are changing, too. And that requires being attuned to each city’s unique culture.
Skipper added, “I always recommend new clerks develop excellent public customer service. Learn to smile, be friendly, and don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Working in a small town often requires the clerk to wear many hats. Charlotte Cheatham has been the City of Edgefield’s town clerk/treasurer for 37 years and is a past president of MFOCTA.
For Cheatham, her roles include preparing financial reports, issuing permits and business licenses, budgeting, handling human resources issues, and promoting the town and its events. All of this requires Cheatham to be an efficient and productive multitasker, but she said what she enjoys most is being part of her hometown community and helping others.
Many people are surprised to learn “what an outreach person the clerk is for the community and employees—both personally and professionally,” Cheatham said. “It is not all paperwork!”
In fact, Cheatham takes great pride in the “above and beyond the call of duty” things she does on a daily basis for council, her fellow employees, Edgefield residents, and visitors. City Hall is the place where people go for answers—for help. Many of the requests don’t have anything to do with city services, according to Cheatham.
“That’s what it is all about,” said Cheatham. “It’s about the people, not the paperwork.” The 6-inch stack of handwritten thank-you notes on her desk affirms her belief.
Orangeburg’s Johnson agrees that the job gives ample opportunity for city clerks to play an important front lines customer service role. “My favorite part of the job is seeing new people attend our council meetings and wanting to know what is going on in their community. I feel that the more people know about our jobs, what we do, they are more appreciative of what is being proposed, new laws, rates, and are aware of any new businesses or industries that may be coming to the area.”
Camilla Pitman has been clerk for the City of Greenville since October 2007, and was president of MFOCTA last year.
“As clerk of a large city, I focus solely on the clerk role,” said Pitman. In her legislative and administrative role, she records and maintains official actions of council, prepares minutes of council meetings, organizes and distributes agendas and supporting documentation for council meetings, and provides administrative support to council.
She also coordinates, on behalf of city council, the applications, appointments, and expirations of board and commission members and manages staff liaisons who support each of the boards and commissions. Greenville averages approximately 135 individuals serving on its various boards and commissions each year.
In addition, Pitman is responsible for the retrieval, storage, and preservation of city council records. She also serves as election officer for municipal elections and as staff liaison to the Municipal Election Commission.
Despite the diversity of clerk responsibilities in cities of all sizes, ensuring all understand the basics of municipal government is critical. The Municipal Association offers several options for clerks to get the training they need.
“City clerks often come to their positions from diverse backgrounds, so training on the specifics of municipal government is very important,” said Wayne George, executive director of the Municipal Association. “In addition to taking MFOCTA training classes, clerks also have access to the Association’s three-year Municipal Clerk/Treasurers Institute that culminates in two certification programs. Plus, there is additional certification at the national level through the International Institute of Municipal Clerks.”
There are currently 39 city clerks in South Carolina who have completed the rigorous training needed for certification.