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History of the Clerk

Before there were mayors, town councils and town managers, there were town clerks. The municipal clerk is the oldest of public servants in local government, along with the tax collector, and the profession traces back before Biblical times. Then and now, the municipal clerk’s office serves as a direct link between citizens of the community and their government. Every town, city, village, and tribe in the world has at least one person who – by whatever title he or she is known – serves in the role of town clerk: custodian of official public records; communicator of public policy; organizer of public business; recorder of the community's history; performer of many varied tasks that assist in the smooth operation of local governance. In writing one of the first-ever textbooks published on municipal administration, Professor William Bennett Munro stated in 1934, "No other office in municipal service has so many contacts. The municipal clerk's office serves the citizens, the mayor, the city council, the city manager/administrator, and all administrative and operational departments of the city 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." Read the history of this office and remember that it is the responsibility of every present-day municipal clerk to honor the history of this profession and – more importantly – to carry forth into the future in a professional manner worthy of this esteemed office.

 
I. Early beginnings.

 

The modern Hebrew translation of town clerk is "mazkir ha'ir," which literally translated means city or town "reminder." The early keepers of archives were often called "remembrancers," and before writing came into use, their memory served as the public record. Ancient Greece had a city secretary who read official documents publicly. At the opening of a meeting, one of his first duties was to decree a curse upon anyone who should seek to deceive the people. St. Paul and his followers, during his missionary work in Persia (now Western Turkey), owed their safety to the action of a town clerk. As related in Acts 19:22-41, written in A.D. 58, the artisans of Ephesus, who made the idols of the time, feared the effect Paul was having on the people and incited a mob to seize two of Paul's followers. The town clerk, however, spoke out against this action and insisted that charges laid against these men had to be settled in the proper manner and before the proper authorities.  There was no justification for riotous conduct.  With that, he dispersed the crowd.


II. Development in England.

The word "clerk" is derived from the Latin “clericus”. During the Middle Ages, when scholarship and writing were limited to the clergy – the cleric -- clerk came to mean a scholar, especially one who could read, write, and thus serve as notary, secretary, accountant, and recorder. It is no coincidence that the word also represents honesty and trustworthiness, also traits exhibited by the village cleric. In ancient England, the township (surrounded by its hedge or "tun") and the borough (an outpost fortified with a wall) developed a strong system of democratic local government. And one of the first officials these freemen elected was the "clerke." In more modern recorded history, the office of municipal clerk in England is recalled in the 1272 Corporation of Old London. The "remembrancer" was called upon to remind the councilors (members of the council) what had transpired at their previous meetings, since the meetings of the early councils were not recorded in written minutes. Throughout the next few centuries, there are hundreds of references in the written historical records of England to the position of municipal clerk, all with highly responsible and respectable duties. Perhaps the strongest statement of the unique position occupied by the municipal clerk is by a Middle Ages English Court ruling in the case, Hurle-Hobbs ex parte Riley and another. Concerning this case, Chief Justice Lord Caldecote, observed: "The office of town clerk is an important part of the machinery of local government. He may be said to stand between the local Council and the ratepayers. He is there to assist by his advice and action the conduct of public affairs in the borough, and, if there is a disposition on the part of the council, still more on the part of any member of the council, to ride roughshod over his opinions, the question must at once arise as to whether it is not his duty forthwith to resign his office or, at any rate, to do what he thinks right and await the consequences."


III. Colonial development.

When the early colonists came to America, they set up forms of local government to which they had been accustomed, and the office of clerk was one of the first to be established. When the colonists first settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, they quickly appointed a person to act as recorder. That person kept all the vital records for birth, marriages and deaths for the church, as well as various other records of appointments, deeds, meetings, and the election of officers at the annual town meeting.
 
The settlers were well aware of the importance of keeping accurate written records of their agreements and actions including grants of land, the collection of taxes and the expenditure of town funds. Not unlike today, the person given the responsibility for recording these orders also was often given others duties, such as sweeping the meeting house and selling the seats, ringing the bell, and paying the bounty for jays and blackbirds whose heads were presented to him by the citizens. By the middle of the 17th century, the title “town clerk” appears in town records and this title has continued to the present. Over the centuries, municipal clerks have become the hub of government, the direct link between the inhabitants of their community and their government. The clerk is the historian of the community for the entire recorded history of the town. In the last 10 to 15 years, the role of the municipal clerk has become increasingly more complex, requiring that the present-day clerk be a professional administrator along with all of his or her other diversified duties. Sources: IIMC Web site (http://www.iimc.com) Northwest Clerks Institute Web site (http://www.nwclerksinstitute.org)