The City Council has its last chance next Monday to place a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to make the office of City Clerk appointive. This is a very good idea which should be supported.
The City Clerk’s position is not a political job. The duties of the City Clerk do not involve political issues or making policy decisions. The job entails promptly and efficiently fulfilling specific duties required by the City Code or delegated by the City Council.
In other words, the job of City Clerk requires professional skill, competence and experience. It is impossible to have a meaningful election for City Clerk, since candidates can only say that they claim to have the ability and experience to do the job. There is really nothing else on which candidates can “campaign” other than their professional qualifications.
Asking voters to pick a City Clerk is asking us compare resumes and personal ability. This is something that we have no real way of investigating or evaluating. By the very nature of the job, a candidate cannot have a platform or program to present to the electorate other than a promise to do the job well. As a voter, I know that there is no practical way that I can obtain the information I would need to decide who is best able to do the job.
In Evanston, with the exception of the City Clerk, such professional, non-political positions are appointive. We no longer elect the City Attorney, and certainly would not consider electing the chiefs of the fire department and police, let alone individual lawyers, firemen or policemen. There is no reason why the City Clerk’s office should be different.
The duties of the City Clerk include maintaining the City’s books and records, keeping accurate minutes of Council Meetings, providing the Council with the materials they need to consider matters on the agenda, and investigating the financial responsibility of any surety on municipal bonds. None of these tasks involve policy making.
Indeed, recently the various duties have been taken away from the clerk and assigned to other city employees, e.g., managing the city-wide mail room and package, and handling the Real Estate Transfer Tax process. While the City Council recently increased the salary of the City Clerk, it now requires the officeholder to do less and less to earn it, imposing additional burdens on other City employees.
Changing the position from elective to appointive is not “anti-democratic.” The selection of the City Clerk would be made by the popularly elected representatives of the citizens of Evanston, the members of the City Council. In our democracy we entrust to the members of the Council the power to make various decisions on our behalf, and rely on the expectation that they will have better access to the information needed to make a proper decision. Appointing the City Clerk is no more undemocratic than appointing the City Attorney or Police Chief and makes sense for the same reason.
A referendum to make the City Clerk’s office appointive is not an attack on the incumbent City Clerk. It would not cut short his elected term. If anything, the current Clerk should have a “leg-up” on any other person who would seek appointment to the position after the expiration of the current elective term. He has the advantage of being able to point to experience in the job and the lack of need for a “learning curve.” His skills and abilities are a known quantity.
The current election process is a significant deterrent for a qualified person wanting to be City Clerk. As former clerk Rodney Greene told me, the costs (both in money and time and effort) of getting on the ballot and “campaigning” are a disincentive to seeking the position, all the more so because the winner must go through the same costly and burdensome process every four years.
That is one reason why both Mr. Greene and the current clerk, Devon Reid, told me that they agreed that the office should be appointive, rather than elective.
Of course, the real reason for making the office appointive is the nature of the job – which is professional and ministerial and not at all political. The office should be appointive so that the City can hire the most qualified person to do the job. The City Council should authorize the referendum, and the people of Evanston should approve it.
Evanston resident James Genden is Harvard Law School graduate and a retired attorney who was a litigator and appellate lawyer in state and federal courts for forty years. In his retirement he writes about political affairs and opera.