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Municipal Clerks Feel Pressure to Modernize as COVID-19 Persists

In one way, the pandemic has made life harder for municipal clerks across the country. In another, it has helped officials imagine what's possible with technology, both now and in the future.

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The responsibilities of municipal clerks may vary, but the pandemic has led many of them to take a hard look at the services they can enhance through technology. 

Ethan Watson, city clerk of Albuquerque, N.M., said a key focus of his office is managing documents for other city departments and citizens. In response to the need for social distancing, Watson’s office has started accepting some documents electronically, such as public bid submissions. 

Before the pandemic, Watson’s team had been digitizing the most frequently requested public records, such as underground storage tank inspection and fire code inspection reports. The office has been ramping up its efforts on this front, scanning close to 10,000 documents a week, but identifying which records are worth the time to scan has been harder than it sounds. 

“We’re where people go to get information,” Watson said. “There are a lot of records that are electronic. But there are also a lot of records on paper, and trying to think of how to negotiate that [digitization process] is challenging at this time.”

Watson’s office also holds public bid openings and conducts hearings for administrative appeals of city ordinances. These events have been converted into Zoom meetings, which have worked well on the whole, though using Zoom does present an access issue for people without good Internet connections. 

The biggest change that Watson wants to see is an electronic payment option for public records requests. 

“People have continued to submit requests, but it’s been a challenge for everyone to process payments,” he said. “In the past, customers could go to this window downstairs. Now they can mail a check. We would really like to transition to an e-model.”

Soulinnee Phan, interim city clerk of Lincoln, Neb., said her office facilitates a variety of committee meetings. These meetings had to be made virtual, but the transition took some time because “a good percentage” of staff had little or no experience with the technology. 

Moving beyond outdated processes has been a deliberate process for Phan since she started working for the city. In recent years, city council agendas were created with WordPerfect. Since the pandemic, however, Phan’s office has been utilizing software like Granicus and OnBase more and more. 

“For the most part, it’s a lot better than it was seven years ago, before I came into the office,” Phan said. 

Still, Phan sees plenty of room for improvement from a technological standpoint, and the health crisis has magnified the limitations of her office. For one, she would like to implement a platform that allows applications and payments to be submitted online. Such an option is frequently requested by customers. 

Phan believes part of the challenge is a culture that doesn’t necessarily want to advance at the same pace as the community and the world. She wants to continue to visit big cities to see how functions can be modernized. 

“You can’t keep doing things the same way over and over again over 30 years,” she said. 

Stephen Ruger, city clerk of Aurora, Colo., said his office made city council meetings 100 percent virtual back in March. One current challenge involves citizen participation. Citizens can still comment at the meetings, but only through emails and prerecorded voicemails. Ruger hopes that for the next council meeting, the city will be able to deploy a system that patches in a public phone queue. 

Other changes for Ruger’s office include only accepting records in an electronic format — which is something the office was pushing for before COVID-19 — and preparing for a transition to digital signatures on key documents.

“We are putting together a policy for that as we speak,” Ruger said. 

One thing the pandemic has highlighted for Ruger is the size of Aurora. The city spans roughly 150 square miles. This realization has led his office to start planning for the rollout of kiosks throughout the city that will let residents help themselves to whatever records they may need. 

“It’s going to be tied to our reopening,” Ruger said. “We have so many unknowns with COVID-19, but we’re hoping by the time we reopen, we’ll have some of these kiosks, if not all of them, available.”

“We’re migrating to as many laptops as we can,” Ruger added, “so these kiosks would be a good way to recycle our functioning towers once we get people on laptops.”

Like Phan, Ruger has sensed that not everyone wants to get away from standbys like paper. Ruger said it’s important to be sensitive to different preferences, but he anticipates moving away from paper as much as possible. 

He also believes government needs to recognize that not everyone can access city services during regular working hours Monday through Friday. That’s where he feels technology is especially important. 

“We can respond to them on their terms rather than our terms,” he said. “We owe it to the public.”

Teneshia Hudspeth, chief deputy clerk of the Harris County Clerk’s Office in the Houston area, said the first challenge for her office was acquiring the necessary equipment for everyone to work from home. Operations came to somewhat of a halt for a couple of weeks. 

Once the office was up and running again, Hudspeth was surprised to find that a lot of people still wanted to get married despite the pandemic. After consulting with other counties, her office was able to put the application and payment portions of the marriage license online, which has made the process smoother for everyone.

However, individuals still must come to an office to receive and certify the license. The marriage license process can’t be fully online until a legal hurdle is crossed. 

“That’s one of the legislative items we’re going to be looking at,” she said. 

Hudspeth said the marriage license system change inspired her office to start looking at other document-related processes that can be virtualized and identifying related legal obstacles. For instance, the team is now testing out a streamlined procedure for Doing Business As (DBA) filings. Additionally, Hudspeth’s office also provides legal services for courts, so there’s a movement now to start digitizing as many court documents as possible. 

Hudspeth suggested there is an increased urgency for her office to modernize. After all, Harris County is the third largest county in the country and provides services for Houston, the fourth most populated U.S. city. 

“Other counties look to us for best practices, but we’re having to learn best practices [ourselves],” Hudspeth said. 

“It’s not a matter of if this should this happen,” she added, in regard to modernizing. “It’s a matter of when it can happen and what the cost effect will be.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.