City Council declines to change South Lake Tahoe city clerk position
September 5, 2018
There won't be any drastic changes to the South Lake Tahoe city clerk position … at least for the time being.
Council heard a report from Tom Stuart, the city's human resource analyst, Tuesday on how the local clerk position matches up with similar cities in California. The conversation was a continuation from previous meetings where council inquired about salary, if the position should be appointed or elected, and whether the position should be full or part time.
South Lake Tahoe voters moved to make the city clerk an elected position in order to create another check on local government in 1974. The thought being — as several residents mentioned at council's Aug. 6 meeting — that a separately elected clerk would operate independent of City Council and the city manager.
Municipal clerks in California are tasked with handling elections and compliance with the state's open records, political reform and open meeting laws. The clerk is the records custodian for a municipality.
In South Lake Tahoe, the city clerk has 24 specific duties outlined in the municipal code. They range from keeping minutes at city council meetings, to publishing public hearing notices, to helping members of the public find information. It is a full-time position.
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The city clerk position has been a topic of conversation since former City Clerk Susan Alessi announced in mid-June she would be retiring prior to the end of her term. She officially retired Aug. 3.
Alessi was the target of criticism in recent months for, among other things, her response to public records requests.
In discussions about the the position, several members of council said the clerk position posed an odd situation. The clerk is elected, meaning the voters are the only oversight to ensure she/he dutifully carries out the responsibilities of the job.
At the same time, the clerk's position has been treated as a city employee when it comes to salary, benefits and other incentives. City employees undergo performance reviews, which the clerk is not subject to — the only review comes via elections.
Action can wait
On a note of clarity, interim attorney Sergio Rudin said Tuesday that changing the position from elected to appointed would require a vote of the public.
Also, state law prohibits any changes to the salary until next year because the clerk's position is on the ballot in November, Stuart said.
According to his analysis, total wages paid to the South Lake Tahoe city clerk in 2017 amounted to $122,213. In comparing the total wages to 16 other cities of similar size with an elected city clerk, South Lake Tahoe's was the highest.
Belmont, a city in the Bay Area, was the second highest at $117,876. The city of Auburn's clerk received total compensation of $81,306.
In total, the analysis looked at 135 cities ranging in population from 10,000-30,000. Aside from the 17 cities with elected clerks, the rest of those 135 are all appointed. Of the 118 with appointed clerks, only 13 had a higher salary than South Lake Tahoe.
On the question of full time vs part time, a survey of 46 Northern California cities found that only two of them had part-time city clerks.
Following Stuart's presentation Tuesday, Mayor Wendy David noted that she did not think council should take action Tuesday. She suggested it be included on council's longterm planning agenda.
Councilor Tom Davis, in echoing comments made by members of the public at previous meetings, stated he preferred having an independent, elected city clerk.
Councilor Austin Sass said he was fine with having an elected clerk, but raised the question of whether the salary needs to be evaluated.
While it's clear City Council can not adjust the salary for the position since it is on the ballot this year, it is less clear whether or not the city can set the salary at the low end of the range listed on the position description.
That document lists a salary ranging from $86,000.72 to $104,538.30.
Staff said it would try and track down and answer for City Council on whether the city can set the salary at the low end or if the city would have to pay the current amount and wait until January to address the question.
Interim help coming
As for the time being, council approved a contract Tuesday for a consultant to assist Susan Blankenship, Alessi's assistant city clerk and one of two candidates running for the clerk position, on a part-time basis. (Ellen Palazzo, a certified municipal clerk who left a position in the city clerk's office earlier this year, also is running for the position.)
When Alessi retired it left Blankenship as the lone employee in the clerk's office. In that time she has risen to the occasion and done a solid job of ensuring the work of the clerk's office is accomplished, according to interim City Manager Dirk Brazil.
"Sue is really stepping up," he told the Tribune.
Still, Brazil suggested council consider bringing a temporary consultant to assist Blankenship and help with larger priorities. Council directed Brazil to find temporary help at its Aug. 6 meeting.
Brazil selected DRB Consultant Services and its principal consultant Dawn Bullwinkel, who worked in the Sacramento city clerk's office for years.
The contract will pay an hourly rate of $100 per hour with a tentative schedule capped at 24 hours per week, although that could change based on the city's needs. The contract also allows for $150 per night in lodging, although Brazil told the Tribune the city has a deal with a local hotel that would cost $99 per night. Bullwinkel would be up at Tahoe three days a week, and that could decrease down the road.
Aside from assisting with some day-to-day responsibilities, Brazil said he is excited to have Bullwinkel assist with two major priorities.
The first will be record retention. The city actually had an up-to-date policy drafted for record retention about six months ago. However, for reasons that Brazil said he was unaware of, the policy was never formally adopted and implemented.
"It's ready to go," he said of the policy.
The second larger priority will be to move the city paperless — something many municipalities across the country have done. The clerk's office, however, still works with hard copy documents.
Essentially, Bullwinkel will help steer the clerk's office in the right direction for the next city clerk.
The contract with Bullwinkel is set to expire when a new clerk is seated on Dec. 11, although the city can opt to terminate the contract before then.
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