Historical Significance of the City Clerk

Purpose of the City Clerk

Positioned between the governing body and the citizens, city clerks are charged with ensuring open and public government - one of the basic tenets of democracy.

Democracy has a number of components (free elections, public decision-making, a public record, and accessibility) and depends on citizen oversight to retain its integrity. When the laws and actions are clearly set forth and the public record accessible, the people are able to effectively exercise supervision. 

City clerks who conduct elections, administer council meetings, create and preserve the record, and provide public notice are integral to the functioning of a democratic system of government, and as such, are partners in democracy.

History of the City Clerk

Clerking may be the most ancient of public service professions, with their first appearance paralleling, or perhaps preceding the office of the tax collector. Clerks often appear in historic chronicles. In 1327, the English parliamentary records mentioned a clerk assigned to the House of Commons. Then, as today, the clerk recorded the proceedings and advised on precedents and procedures.

Early American Clerks

In the 1600s, the clerk, along with British colonists, emigrated to the United States where their functions took on an American flavor. New England towns developed the town meeting form of government. The citizens in concert decided on the rules and projects to be undertaken and elected a town clerk to carry out the work. Thus, the clerk's role expanded beyond recording and advising into managing. The clerk was now a clerk/administrator.

Growth of City Clerks

Towns grew into cities. Town clerks became city clerks. The world grew more complex, tasks more specialized. A continually evolving society required that work once performed by an individual be shared with others. In the early 1900s, the city manager's profession emerged. With the advent of a chief administrative officer and subsequent growth of the council-manager form of government, the city clerk's role metamorphosed yet again. The clerk assumed a corporate secretary role befitting the job's business model, yet retained some of the ancient attributes of clerk/advisor and vestiges of the town meeting era. Thirty percent of California's local governments still elect their city clerk.

Modern Clerks

In today's era of open, fluid and faceless communications, one of the difficulties is to discern the true from the false or deceptive. Nowhere is the need for truth greater than in government. The paramount challenge for clerks in the electronic age is to retain the people's confidence as an impartial administrator and trusted conservator of public records and processes.