The History and Scope of the City Clerk's Role

Lena Eisenstein
5 min read
You may be surprised to learn that the city clerk's role is one of the two oldest public servant professions, along with the tax collector. In fact, the city clerk's role and responsibilities date back to before Biblical times. The Bible also makes reference to the city clerk's role and responsibilities. Historical records show that the city clerk's role and responsibilities continued in ancient Greece, France and England. In an effort to set up some type of local government, colonial settlers in America established the position of town clerk.

Early recorders kept a mental record of the town's happenings and recited records orally at town meetings. As written languages evolved, town clerks began documenting records in written documents. Today, clerks still use written documents to record their town's history and important records, but how they store records has evolved with technology. In today's world, it's faster, safer and more cost-effective for city clerks to use electronic storage for important documents, such as a board portal by iCompass, a Diligent brand.

The History of the City Clerk's Role and Responsibilities

The title of town clerk in Hebrew is Mazkir Ha'ir, which literally means city or town reminder. Some of the earliest historical records show that a town clerk once rescued St. Paul and his missionary followers from mob action in Persia, which is now Western Turkey. As the story goes, the artisans of Ephesus were making idols of false gods. They worried about the negative financial impact of Paul's missionary work on their trade. Ephesus organized a mob and instructed them to seize two of Paul's followers. When the town clerk got word of the plot, he publicly insisted that the two men should face charges before the proper authorities, which broke up the mob and ended the threats against Paul and his followers.

In ancient Greece, the early keepers of the archives were called 'Remembrancers' before writing became the norm. In addition to reading official documents publicly solely from their memory, city clerks, or secretaries, as they were known, were required to invoke a curse upon anyone who sought to deceive the people.

The title of clerk as we know it was derived from the word cleric, or clergyman, during the Middle Ages. At that time, only clerks were scholars, so the name clerk became synonymous with scholar.

We can also trace the Office of the Clerk back to 1272 AD in the history of the Corporation of Old London. In the 1500s, the clerk was referred to as the Town Clark. In a landmark case, Chief Justice Lord Caldecote stated that the office of town clerk was 'an important part of the machinery of local government...'

The early American settlers also brought the idea of a town clerk to the new world. The Office of Clerk was the first position they established in the local government at Plymouth Colony. The city clerk's role and responsibilities extended to their services as the recorder of appointments, deeds, meetings, and births, deaths and marriages. The clerk was also responsible for overseeing elections.

Scope of the City Clerk's Role and Responsibilities

In today's society, municipal clerks have become the hub of the government. Clerks stand as the local historian and remain a trusted link between the citizens and the government. In one of the first textbooks ever written on the topic of municipal administration, author Professor William Bennett Munro stated:

'No other office in municipal service has so many contacts. It serves the Mayor, the City Council, the City Manager (when there is one), and all administrative departments, without exception. All of them call upon it, almost daily, for some service or information. Its work is not spectacular, but it demands versatility, alertness, accuracy, and no end of patience. The public does not realize how many loose ends of city administration this office pulls together.'

The city clerk's role and responsibilities require individuals serving in this capacity to embody specific qualities and characteristics in order to fulfill the many duties that the position calls for. City clerks must be good communicators who have a good command of written and oral language. An individual serving as city clerk must be self-motivated and be willing to take the initiative on tasks. To fulfill the city clerk role and responsibilities, the position requires having good multitasking ability and problem-solving skills. Clerks must be effective working in teams and must also be able to provide good customer service.

The clerk's role also entails general office duties, recordkeeping, customer service, meeting preparation and election duties.

Specifically, city clerk responsibilities include storing and maintaining municipal documents and records, fiscal records and vital records. Many municipalities still maintain all of their records in paper files; however, this puts records at risk of natural disasters such as floods and fires, as well as damage due to issues such as mold and animal infestation, which isn't a problem for users of iCompass, a Diligent brand's, board portal.

Municipalities expect city clerks to be proficient in general office duties such as keyboarding, proofreading and correspondence, distributing and filing official forms, taking calls and scheduling appointments. Some local governments also enlist the help of their clerks in contract administration duties.

In general, clerks still provide the link between citizens and the government. They typically respond to the public's requests for public meeting agendas, minutes and other Freedom of Information Act requests. Most laws support the public's right to certain types of public information, and the clerk provides the necessary transparency of government records.

A clerk's duties typically entail helping the council president set up for council meetings by preparing ordinances, resolutions and agendas. City clerks also usually write up meeting minutes and manage local elections.

Often, cities, towns and villages require their clerks to track follow-up actions after council meetings and to send reminders to council members to address their follow-up activities.

At times, municipal clerks must collaborate with other government staff in working toward the municipality's goals, objectives, policies and priorities.

The role of city clerks has evolved over the centuries, giving clerks increasing responsibilities. It's a role that would be impossible to commit to memory today, as clerks were expected to do centuries ago. Electronic document storage and board portals are the game-changers of today, just as written languages enhanced the accuracy of recordkeeping during ancient times.