St. Pete Beach clerk may report to new boss

Published Sept. 15, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

(ran Beach edition)

People who oppose a plan to reorganize the city clerk's office say the shake-up would eliminate checks and balances and could jeopardize the public trust.

The plan, which has been debated in the city since 1989, would place the city clerk _ the custodian of records and the city seal _ under the city manager. Right now, the two offices are separate. Each official reports to the city commission.

"There's no right or wrong here," said Maurice Bisheff, resource director for the International Institute of Municipal Clerks in San Dimas, Calif. "It's a question of what the city's values are."

Bisheff suggested that officials put the issue on a ballot as a referendum question to gauge public opinion.

On Tuesday night, city commissioners will schedule a workshop date to discuss the reorganization, which Mayor Kevan Finch broached a few weeks ago. Already, residents are circulating petitions to keep City Clerk Jane Ellsworth's office separate.

"Leave a well-run and excellent agency out of political hands," one petition states.

There is concern among residents that if a city clerk's supervisor is the city manager, the checks and balances system would not exist and the flow of information would be restricted.

"You believe that? That has no value," said City Manager Danny Walker, who favors the reorganization for efficiency. "All department heads are expected to follow the law and do what's right. You think the finance director would write me a check for $100,000 if I asked him to?"

City clerks, according to state law, attest to the authenticity of records and ensure that proper legislative procedures are followed. City managers carry out the policies of the commission.

"Let us assume the city manager comes to her and says "I want you to sign something,' and she says, "I can't. It's illegal,' " resident Sid Gewanter asked commissioners at the last meeting.

"And he says, 'You better sign or you're fired.' Where do you stand?"

Replied Mayor Finch, during an interview:

"We don't expect these people to be yes people but to give guidance. She could give her boss guidance and say, "No sir, that's not appropriate.' "

Two weeks ago, Finch suggested appointing Walker as city clerk. The item was not on the agenda for discussion. Finch segued to that after discussing concerns about employee overtime. It appeared Finch was the only official on the commission who favored the reorganization.

Under the new structure, City Clerk Jane Ellsworth and her staff would continue taking meeting minutes and storing records. What was not outlined was who would sign documents, press the city seal or run elections.

Walker said he would allow Ellsworth to keep the same duties she has now, only he would act as her supervisor.

The reorganization position was a switch for Finch, who, in 1989, supported two separate offices. At that time, he said it offered good checks and balances.

Finch, saying he made a mistake, changed his mind after he learned Ellsworth recently had asked city attorneys to draft an ordinance to establish an official records management program for the city.

Though Ellsworth said she was given direction to draft the ordinance last fall under former Mayor Mike Horan, Finch said she did not consult with department directors. The ordinance was pulled from the agenda.

"The performance of the city clerk's office is fine," Finch told commissioners. "The real problem is an inability for the clerk's office to work in conjunction with and cohesively with the rest of the city departments."

Ellsworth, who was appointed city clerk in 1988, prefers to answer to the commission. Of the southern Pinellas beach communities, Treasure Island is the only city with a city manager who acts as city clerk.

"The separate power that is present in our charter establishes a system that tends to avoid abuse that could occur when you centralize control in a single office," she said.

Walker, the city manager, proposed last October the same reorganization that Finch is describing.

At that time, Walker said the change could save money and would give the city clerk's employees an avenue of appeal should problems arise within the department. The city commission would appoint the city clerk, but the city manager would supervise the department, including the clerk.

The proposal did not get support.

Paula Cook, president of the Florida Association of City Clerks, cannot think of any reasons to change the city's structure. A deputy clerk for the city of Tallahassee, Cook said separate offices assure the purity of information.

She said the battles usually are turf wars.

"When you get down to it," Cook said, "having control of the employees is more power. If you control everybody, you control the message the taxpayer and the commission gets."

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