The revelation that Pleasant Hill's elected city clerk did not produce any council meeting minutes for an entire year has shined light on the trend of cities changing that position from elected to appointed.
The desire for professionally trained and certified clerks who are accountable to city officials seems to be driving the trend toward making it an appointed office.
According to the League of California Cities, voters elect the city clerk in only 132 of the state's 482 cities.
City clerks perform such critical tasks as preparing meeting minutes, maintaining official records and administering elections. They also ensure that municipalities comply with federal, local and state laws, including California's open meeting and public records acts.
The job requires hours of work and specialized knowledge. But city clerk is usually a part-time post, and anyone 18 or older and registered to vote in the city can run for office.
Fewer and fewer of them are elected.
"We are seeing a trend of appointed clerks and treasurers and that's become more apparent in cities over the last 20 to 25 years," said San Pablo City Manager Matt Rodriguez, where council members dropped plans to put the question before voters in 2010 due to the cost.
"I think you're seeing more of this, professional and technical skills desired as a part of those positions," he added.
Pleasant Hill City Clerk Kim Lehmkuhl says she has been overwhelmed trying to balance her duties as clerk with her full-time job at a civil rights advocacy group. Unhappy with Lehmkuhl's performance, the council plans to consider a ballot measure asking whether the city clerk should become an appointed office.
"I'm not sure if appointed clerk is the right answer," Councilman David Durant said. "But at least I think it's a good conversation to have."
In Pittsburg, elected clerk Alice Evenson also holds the full-time staff position of director of records and council service, a dual role she said has been the norm in the city for decades. Over time, the clerk's role has expanded, she added, and now entails much more than posting agendas and keeping minutes.
"There are so many statutory requirements to do the job itself and if you don't have a good and seasoned, well-trained deputy city clerk staff member doing the day-to-day work, it really becomes a problem as you have seen," Evenson said, referring to Lehmkuhl.
Theoretically at least, an elected clerk serves as an independent voice, not beholden to the council for their job.
"The city clerk has to be neutral, and it doesn't matter if you're elected or if you're appointed, you have to take a neutral stand," said Evenson, a certified master municipal clerk. "The argument that it should be elected, to me, doesn't hold water because we aren't policy makers."
But Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said that in cities that run the elections, an elected city clerk can take an independent look at election results. But even in cases where the city contracts with a vendor or the county to handle the election, as cities in Contra Costa do, the elected clerk is important.
"What that elected city clerk role is to do largely is to be the public's accounting entity, so they're double checking what the outcome of the election is based on that vendor or the county running the election and they can serve as a check in situations where questions arise," Feng said.
Many smaller cities have a hybrid model in which the elected clerk performs the basic duties such as signing official documents and swearing in officials, but a deputy clerk handles the daily responsibilities, according to Feng. This is the situation in Martinez, for example.
In 2008, the Concord City Council considered making the clerk and treasurer appointed positions since both had become largely ceremonial, said Bill Shinn, who was mayor at the time. Voters approved the change that November.
"My personal choice was that we professionalize and have somebody on staff that you can actually go through the review process (with)," Shinn said.
And an election, he added, is a roll of the dice, since the quality of the candidates can vary widely.
"I think it's an example of what can happen if you get a nonprofessional that's elected and the city manager has no say," Shinn said, referring to Lehmkuhl.
Lisa P. White covers Concord and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.