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City Clerks play essential role in Municipal Government

Teamwork, leadership, ongoing education, networking and collaborating on best practices are some of the most important traits and tactics needed and used by City Clerks in jurisdictions around the world. 

In Lethbridge, the team is led by City Clerk Bonnie Hilford, Deputy City Clerk David Sarsfield and Ryan Westerson, the City’s Legislative Services Manager. This week is also the annual Professional Municipal Clerks Week.

“Ultimately, we’re here to support our elected officials, as well as Administration and the public – we are kind of the middle ground, the trifecta, of all three of those,” says Westerson. “We are the glue. We support the decision making and are the ones that make sure the processes are followed.” 

“Every municipality needs a Clerk and we need to support Council,” says Hilford, who is a Certified Municipal Clerk and has 25 years of total experience between stints at Rocky View County, Okotoks and Calgary – as well as here in Lethbridge since June 2019.  

She was the Alberta Municipal Clerks Association Director from 2013 to 2017, as well as one of two Canadian directors for the International Institute of Municipal Clerks (IIMC), a nonprofit organization with more than 15,000 members worldwide, from 2017 to 2020. 

Hilford will also be the Host Clerk for the 78th IIMC Annual Conference, set for May 19 to May 22 in Calgary with more than 1,000 people anticipated to attend. IIMC members represent municipalities with populations ranging from 1,000 people to more than 10 million. Hilford and her Host Committee, which includes Sarsfield, Westerson, and five of her Clerk colleagues from Alberta, have created a conference theme centred on education. She was part of the bid committee, in partnership with Tourism Calgary, while still working in Calgary and was asked to host the conference. 

“It takes a certain breed, but I love it. It fits me; I like to problem solve and coordinate, I like detail, and I like accuracy,” says Hilford, who presented during last year’s IIMC conference in Minneapolis. “It’s really a learning opportunity and it’s educational to do something like this. Because you need a team, it’s teamwork, it’s leadership, and you’re working with other Clerks.” 

Hilford has learned from various styles of governance in other countries and jurisdictions. There are similarities in responsibilities, such as holding elections, recording meeting minutes, keeping records, and processing legislation changes and FOIP requests. Then there are some vast some differences in other areas, such as some Clerks being responsible for birth records – and in the United States, where about 25 per cent of Clerks are elected to office rather than using a standard hiring practice. 

“Clerks must do the same thing, basically. We serve Council because Council can’t do things on their own. We help them with their meetings, with their agenda and with what they need. Clerks do that all across the world. It’s different, but there are commonalities – the Dutch as very similar to Canadian clerks. It’s good to see a different culture. It really expands you and opens you up to new ideas,” says Hilford, who is also quick to praise the Lethbridge team. “They’re just a wealth of knowledge and they bring different things to the table.” 

Sarsfield is a Registered Parliamentarian and Westerson is the president of the Alberta Municipal Clerks Association, after being elected in April 2023 for a two-year term. He believes strongly in the importance of public access and relationship building. Having the ability to connect with colleagues across the province helps him know about any possible changes to Provincial legislation that would have any potential impact to the municipality.

“It’s like-positioned people around Alberta who are doing similar things in varying sizes of municipalities,” says Westerson. 

Public needs and technology are always subject to change and the Clerks do their best to adjust. One example is that Lethbridge was one of the first municipalities in Alberta to use tabulators for elections, as well as livestream its Council meetings.

“We started in 2010 and since then, we have been improving that process and driving some change. In 2019, we took our livestream and added the YouTube component,” says Westerson, adding that Lethbridge also adapted the Standing Policy Committee process from the Calgary model that Hilford had experience with. “Connecting with other municipalities to learn from them and see if there are tips and tricks we can take, to not only give Council a better experience and maximize their ability to fulfill their governing role, but also how can we parlay that into Administration being successful in reporting to Council.” 

Hilford regularly presents to Grade 6 classes on their curriculum of local government and the election process. And on April 25, she held an introductory session on Municipal Government for the public. Based on future interest, this could turn into an annual event moving forward. From her time as a one-person department in Okotoks, she also still aims to help the next generation of Clerks. 

“I always want to help new people or people in small towns as I know what it was like. I want to give back as the profession as been so good to me, and pay it forward,” Hilford says. “I always put my name out there. These Clerks become your friends. I can call them up in an instant and ask ‘hey, what are you doing?’ We do that with census and elections, we do that with remote participation, and that’s important as we are always striving for continuous improvement and efficiency and not having to reinvent the wheel sometimes makes sense. You can bet we will be getting together to discuss the proposed amendments to the Local Elections Act and how to navigate them.”

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