Council Puts Clerk Debate Before Voters in November

South Pasadena Mayor Marina Khubesrian (from left), Councilmember Diana Mahmud and Councilmember Richard Schneider listen to public comment during the City Council meeting at City Hall, July 17. Photo by Skye Hannah

After a lengthy debate, the South Pasadena City Council voted 4-0 with one abstention to place on the November ballot a measure letting voters decide whether to continue having both an appointed chief city clerk and a ceremonial elected city clerk.

If passed by voters, the ballot measure, approved at the July 17 council meeting, would remove the ceremonial elected position and delegate full authority of the office to the appointive position of chief city clerk.

The city clerk position in South Pasadena was an elected, full-time role until 2013, when the council voted to bifurcate the role. According to Assistant to the City Manager Lucy Demirjian, a full-time appointed position was then created for the appointee to serve as a management professional with specialized training and education to carry out the required duties of the office.

The appointed position requires election-law knowledge, technical skills, records-expertise management, Public Records Act requirements, and additional requirements, all of which the previous elected position carried out. The elected role became a part-time ceremonial position that receives a monthly $300 stipend to attend council meetings and sign council documents — the same monthly stipend that councilmembers receive.

Citing information from the League of California Cities, Demirjian noted that around 70 percent of city clerks around the state are appointed, a trend that has increased in the last decade.

Speaking at the meeting, Sally Kilby, who served as the full-time elected city clerk from 2000-2013 — and is now a contributor to the Review — noted that while the elected city clerk position is no longer essential, she feels a significant amount of education would be necessary to explain the issue to voters. She opposes putting the measure on the ballot, at least for this year, saying it would be a distraction to voters who also will decide on a city sales tax in November. 

Councilmember Richard Schneider abstained from the vote with similar concerns on a distraction.

“We decided that bifurcating the role provided for the city clerk’s office to be professionally run but also to allow the residents to feel comfortable by electing someone from the community as they have for years, and I know that’s very important to a number of residents,” said Kilby.

The council discussed postponing the vote for the measure to until the November 2020 ballot. Several members noted that it may cause residents further confusion, as the next election for city clerk is set for that ballot.

Councilmember Diana Mahmud stressed that the council was not eliminating the position, but rather wanting the residents’ thoughts on whether they thought it was a necessary position, as many of the duties can be carried out by the appointed position.

“What we’re saying is we want to have the folks vote on it,” said Mahmud. “We’re giving the option to the residents. So, none of us are saying eliminate the position, but we are saying, ‘Look, here is this ceremonial position, this is what it costs, and it’s something that can be done with the appointed or the hired city clerk.’ I tend to trust the community.”

Mayor Marina Khubesrian said the issue was consistent with the message that the city was working to convey with the proposed sales tax. Even though the $300 a month was not a significant amount, she said, she wanted residents to know that the council was being responsive to budget factors.

“We are looking at ways to streamline where possible,” said Khubesrian. “If the community really feels strongly that they would like to continue having an elected city clerk, then they will tell us, and I feel like that’s the only way we can figure out what the community wants.”

In light of the concern that the city would be losing a position that is held accountable by residents, City Attorney Theresa Highsmith added that the elected city clerk’s only duties are to sign documents that are created by the City Council.

“So in a sense, the services … are more truly provided to the council and not the people who vote for the position,” said Highsmith.