We are democracy in action.

Vida Barone, President/CEO, City Clerk Management Services, Inc.

Being a city clerk, my office serves as the public counter. We’re the closest staff to the residents when it comes to anything administrative. We’re their starting point. We are the corporate secretary. So if there’s any formal information that comes in or formal information that goes out, as official communication, legal communication, it typically comes through our office.

We do three main things. The first of the three things we do, is we manage the legislative agenda. We make sure that we communicate to the public when their elected officials are going to meet, why they’re going to meet, the topics that they’re going to discuss, and then we transact all the business that was agreed upon at the meeting on the public’s behalf. And then we memorialize that in the form of legal documents, ordinances, laws, resolutions, so the public can always go back and understand what had happened. The city council cannot meet until there’s certain legal noticing that’s completed because the public has a right to know what their elected officials are going to be talking about and discussing on their behalf. There’s a noticing period, there are specific parameters on how the items have to be described on the public document. It has to be written in layman’s terms so an ordinary citizen without technical knowledge about municipal affairs can understand it. And our office helps facilitate that. When we get the descriptions of the agenda items, if it’s too technically complicated, we help them pare it down; we help the departments adjust the language.

The second thing we do, which I think is the part that’s closest to the public, is that we run elections. We are in charge of the entire election administration and we handle everything from making sure the names are spelled right on the ballots to making sure the fonts are correct on the materials you receive at home, to preparing and ensuring that documents that have campaign expenditure information on it are available to the public so the public knows who’s donating to which campaigns, to actually counting the votes and making the judgement calls when it comes down to voter intent.

The third thing that we do is city-wide records management. We manage the official records for the entire city, whether it’s an electronic record, a digital record, a hard copy record, a telephone message, a voicemail message… our office is responsible for managing that from beginning to end.

When we’re in election time, we’re in mission critical time. It’s an eight-month process. I think most people think an election is Election Day. But it starts eight months earlier when you call the election. There’s legal proceedings that have to happen in order to initiate an election. And for what purpose is the election being initiated? Is it to elect members of the city council? Is it to run a special election because the public has gathered enough signatures for an initiative? Is it because they’ve gathered enough signatures for a referendum? Is it because they’re trying to recall one of their council members? You do have your regular election for officers just like you have for President and Governor and all the elected officials that most people are familiar with. There’s a normal cycle, and then the public always has a right to call for a vote and there’s a procedure for doing that as well.

In general, the public would notify the jurisdiction that it is wanting to place a measure before the voters in that jurisdiction and so they would notify us. There’s a Notice of Intention that they’re wanting to do that. And so it kind of starts a back and forth process. They notify us, we look at their materials and review whether it’s something that can be placed; it has to be worded correctly, it has to meet certain standards that are pursuant to the Election Code. If it meets the standards, we let them know, “Ok, it’s ok to proceed. Take your next step.”

In general, what the next step is, is they start circulating their petitions. Now the petitions in and of themselves, the ones that you see in front of Albertson’s or whatever and they ask you to sign it, they also have to meet certain standards. They have to have the margins a certain length, they have to have the font a certain size, they have to correctly describe the matter. It has to be exactly how they turn that information in to us, and then they have a certain deadline by which they can gather these signatures. All the signatures have to be valid signatures; they can’t just be random people that don’t live in the jurisdiction. It’s a certain percentage, so if they get 10 or 15 percent of the eligible voters in that jurisdiction to sign and they get it by the deadline and all those signatures are valid, then it triggers an election. But there’s a million steps in between that can all go wrong. Which is, they didn’t word their petition correctly, or they exceeded the word count on their language or they didn’t get the signatures… they may have gotten enough numbers, maybe they got 10,000 signatures, but only 8,000 of them were valid. Our office has to authenticate each of those signatures to assure that that person was actually an eligible voter in that jurisdiction for that time period.

We always recommend that any member of the public who wants to initiate an initiative or referendum, or even a recall, that they get legal counsel because just as strictly as we have to follow the rules for the public’s protection, so does the public. They also have to follow the rules for the protection of the voters.

We’re one of the major institutions of society and we play a big part. It’s probably a part that people don’t pay attention to, but our infrastructure, whether it’s the actual city hall or the pipes underneath your street… this all affects your existence. The pipes in your city probably haven’t been replaced in 50 to 100 years. And that takes money. It takes labor and staff time and those decisions, like which areas of your city are going to be replaced and which aren’t, those decisions are being made right now at your city council meeting, in your local jurisdiction; you have an influence. It’s amazing to me that all this is going on and people just are not aware. I think about that a lot. How can we advise people and help them get excited about this?

What I find interesting is that there’s so much information out there that’s available to the public about the public meetings, when they’re going to be, they’re televised on TV, and we put out e-mail blasts and yet the public doesn’t participate in their local meetings. It’s very rare that you’ll get more than a handful of people attending any local or small jurisdictional meetings and it’s interesting because that’s the form of government that’s the closest to you. It’s in your neighborhood. The decisions that five people or seven people are making could influence whether there’s a huge development that gets built in your backyard. Or of a freeway goes by or if an overpass is going to be constructed. These kinds of decisions are going on every day. There’s a public agenda for your city where you live, right now, online, where you can go and read it. You can see what developments are coming in. You can see how much your public officials are getting paid. You can see if they’re going to rezone your neighborhood so that big gigantic shopping center can come in.

I know how much influence can be had at the local level. I’ve seen kids get skate parks built because they came and lobbied their city council. That’s really the good thing about the public process: there is an avenue for you. We are the office of transparency, we are democracy in action. We are the avenue, we are the public counter, we are who gets petitioned when individuals want redress in front of their elected officials. We’re not there to block them and try to make it hard and have these bureaucratic pieces of red tape that they have to go through. We want them to do what they want, and then the voters decide. And that’s the best thing, right? If you can lobby your fellow community members and get them to vote a certain way, then good for you. You were successful in a process for which all these rules were set up to do. And I’m all for that. I really try to help people walk away with a positive image of government. At least at the local level.

I was in school and wound up as a psychology major but not really wanting to practice psychology… it just kind of fascinated me as a subject. I had kind of fallen into taking some political science classes, although I wasn’t a political science major. I took a public administration class and that was my first foray into government. And I loved it. I wound up doing an internship at a local jurisdiction because my mom and sister happened to work there and I needed to do an internship. They happened to get me an internship at the senior center right at the time they were doing a city-wide survey on senior citizens. Because I was a psychology major with a heavy interest in statistics, I was free labor for them. I helped them analyze the data. From there, I got a paid job. And I just started promoting up because I never said no. They said “Do you want to run a youth employment group now?” I’m like, “Ok!” I didn’t know anything about youth employment! I barely know how to employ myself. I never said no to opportunities that were presented to me.

I did work for traditional local government, but then I stepped away when I got remarried and had the opportunity to become a consultant. I started consulting for cities so I could have a more flexible time schedule. And that became really successful. I would go in, do my thing, and get out. Then I was doing this for a lot of cities all at the same time where they would either bring us in to do management studies to make their processes more efficient or they had an election and they didn’t have the technical expertise in-house – they brought us in to run either all of the election or just one portion of it. I was able to build that business and all of a sudden I had too much work on my hands, so then I started to hire and train people to work for the company. Now, they’re deployed out, so when I went back to working for just one particular jurisdiction, I still have the business and I administer it from a very macro point of view. But I don’t do the hands-on day-to-day work in any of those cities. I run the company, I own the company, but I have staff that work for me that are deployed out in other jurisdictions, doing the same job that I do for one particular jurisdiction. I’m at one place Monday through Friday as their in-house expert but I have administrators and staff people that are out and I kind of manage the whole thing globally.

I’m very interested in more of a generalist city management role. I think that would be the next step for me. So, a deputy city manager or assistant city manager where I can be the liaison amongst departments for city-wide projects. For example, my office just handled a conversion from our old electronic document management system to a new, more upgraded system and that required meeting with each department and finding out what their needs were, how they all fit together, which items were going to be prioritized, and which ones were going to be converted over and which ones weren’t. For me, it was really easy to look at all of the departments and kind of know instinctually which projects were going to be moving forward. When we met with each of the departments, I could kind of give them an initial briefing about what our recommendations would be, and then obviously let them make the decision. For whatever reason, it’s easier for me to see how all those pieces fit together. It’s almost like an orchestra conductor. I don’t need to know how to play the trombone the way the best trombone player would play it, but I need to know how the trombone piece fits with the flute piece fits with the percussion… that’s my job. Just to understand how these pieces fit together so we’re all moving forward in concert with what the community’s goals are.

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