Civics 105: the City Clerk

Submitted by

Suanne Thamm

Reporter – News Analyst


(Sixth and final article in a series local government)

To many citizens, the City Clerk’s Office is the face of the city. This is the office that they contact first with questions and problems, whether their problems relate to code enforcement, cemetery lots, utility bills, impact fees or any other of the myriad tasks performed within the City of Fernandina Beach. Over the years various city commissioners have sometimes refused to deal with the City Manager, instead turning to the City Clerk as surrogate or mediator, leading some in the community to believe that the abuse or misuse of this office by city commissioners gives rise to much of the paranoia and rumors that circulate concerning city government.

Under the Charter of the city of Fernandina Beach, the City Manager is described as the administrative head of municipal government; the City Attorney is described as the legal advisor to and attorney and counselor for the municipality and all of its officers in matters relating to their official duties. But the City Clerk, who could be described as the keeper of official records, is not so described. Rather, in Section 47 of the Charter, the nature of that position seems more ambiguous (“responsible to the City Commission for proper administration of all affairs of the City assigned to the office of the City Clerk”) somewhat delimited by 13 more specific duties and powers:

a) Attend all meetings of the City Commission and keep a journal of its proceedings, the correctness of which proceedings as entered in such journal shall be certified to after each meeting by the signature of the City Clerk and by the signature of the presiding officer of the City Commission. Additionally, a journal shall be maintained of the proceedings of all boards and committees required by the City Commission;

b) The City Clerk shall be the custodian of the seal of the City;

c) Conduct municipal elections exercising authority not reserved to county constitutional officers; however all such authority and responsibility to conduct municipal elections, either special or general municipal elections, may be contracted out to the Nassau County Supervisor of Elections, as determined by the City Commission from time to time;

d) Countersign all checks and review outgoing checks to determine compliance with the City’s established Purchasing Policy and Procedures;

e) Serve as legal custodian of all city records including but not limited to, all contracts, deeds, abstracts, title insurance policies and other official documents, and perform such other duties as may be required by ordinance or resolution of the City Commission, as well as such as may be required by City Clerks by the general law of the state, applicable to municipalities and not inconsistent with this charter or with any ordinance or resolution passed by the City Commission;

f) Authenticate all ordinances, resolutions and transcripts of legislative functions;

g) Publish all public notices required by the City Commission or by law;

h) Prepare all awards, proclamations, certificates and other formal Documentation by the City Commission;

i) Notify the City Commission of all vacancies on boards or committees established by the City Commission;

j) File all liens, satisfactions and releases as authorized by the City Manager;

k) Serve as notary public on behalf of the City and attest all City documents as required;

l) The direct employees of the City Clerk in the office of the City Clerk shall report to the City Clerk. The City Clerk shall have the authority to hire, direct, promote and terminate the employees in the City Clerk’s office, notwithstanding Section 29(b) herein; and

m) Any other duties as required by the City Commission.

Arguably, the most important of these duties involve public records and elections. The City Clerk must record, transcribe and certify official actions of the city; store and retrieve these records as needed. This duty means that the City Clerk must be able to interact with all city departments to meet both legal and citizen demands for public records.  Even though the city currently contracts out elections to the County’s Supervisor of Elections, the City Clerk still has an important role to play in qualifying candidates for election.

In recent years, this position has experienced less turnover than other Charter officers.  From 1983-2000, the position was held by Vicki Peterson Cannon, who left the city to run successfully for the position of Nassau County Supervisor of Elections, a position she holds today. She was succeeded as City Clerk by Mary Mercer, a Deputy City Clerk who served under Mrs. Cannon. Mrs. Mercer left the city for 3 years to continue serving under Mrs. Cannon in the Elections Office, but returned to the position of City Clerk in 2006.  She continues to serve in that position today. During Mrs. Mercer’s 3-year absence, the position of City Clerk was held by the late Cassandra Mitchell, who had also served under City Clerks Cannon and Mercer.

In at least the early 1970’s this position was titled City Auditor and Clerk.  In those days the city also had a city judge, who was supported by the Clerk. The position then appeared to be more analogous to the County Clerk of Courts than it is today. The change in state law abolishing municipal courts and the addition of a Comptroller to the City Manager’s city organization appeared to change the Clerk’s role. Indeed, some cities either eliminated the position of City Clerk or moved it under the City Manager’s jurisdiction. During the tenure of Fernandina Beach city manager Zachary Zoul (1995-97) the atmosphere of distrust that arose between the city commission and the city manager caused the city commission to back a successful Charter amendment to clarify the reporting relationship of the City Clerk to the City Commission, thus eliminating the notion of dual reporting to the commission and the city manager.

Whether the relationship has been clarified in fact is open to debate.  All the Charter Officers must work together for the city to succeed. Yet over the years some commissioners have seemed to believe that for a system of checks and balances to exist within the city, it is better to foster an atmosphere of distrust among Charter officers that encourages each of them to carry tales about one another’s operations or performance to the commissioners. Such an organizational culture sabotages teamwork and saps employee morale, keeping everyone on edge and afraid of sharing information.

The 2007 Charter Review Committee discussed the need for an office of ombudsman where citizens as well as city staff could take complaints for prompt resolution. Some cities have such an office, often combined with an office of internal auditor. The committee stepped back from making such a recommendation, not because there wasn’t a need, but because it was unrealistic to expect the city to add positions to the government bureaucracy. In the absence of such an office, the City Clerk’s Office with its customer service orientation has often stepped into the role of problem solver when the problems to be solved are not in the Clerk’s office, but in the City Manager’s domain. [Note that even with an extensive list of duties laid out in the Charter, there is no mention of the Clerk’s role in dispute resolution or sorting out problems between the public and various city offices.]Such initiative, while commendable in many ways, blurs the lines of authority and accountability within the city, often disrupting city operations in the process.  If citizens, city staff and city commissioners look to the City Clerk as a shortcut to getting things done, the employees who are charged (and paid) to do certain functions in the city are either being given a pass or operating in ignorance that their operations are not functioning properly. Neither situation should be desirable for our city government or the taxpayers.

One can make arguments to formally increase the responsibility of the Clerk to include activities with respect to dissemination of information. In the absence of a Public Information Officer, the Clerk could be made responsible for press relations, the city website and technology to support live streaming of city commission and board meetings as well as the public access cable channel. Or conversely, the argument could be made to move the functions of the City Clerk’s office into the office of the City Manager, since there is so much interdependence between the two offices. But until city commissioners understand and agree to abide by the City Charter, the City Clerk’s office will continue to be viewed with skepticism by those who see its prime function as selectively providing information to individual commissioners and the media. Such a view is grossly unfair to both the City Clerk and the staff of that office who are widely praised for their positive attitude to public service.

June 13, 2012 9:32 p.m.