CARLSBAD — A debate is brewing over the city’s only ballot measure this election cycle to determine whether or not to keep the city clerk as an elected position.
Currently, Carlsbad has no city clerk. The Carlsbad City Council declined to appoint the position after Barbara Engleson retired last year.
However, the council has recently voiced its unanimous support of Measure C, which allows the city manager to hire for the position. According to the city attorney’s impartial analysis, the shift to an appointed position would save the city $40,000 per year.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” said Sheila Cobian, the city’s legislative and constituent services director and who formerly worked in the clerk’s office. “The city clerk position is a full-time position that is already being handled by staff and if you allow an elected official to do it, there could be the appearance of impropriety.”
Clerk responsibilities, challenges
Cobian, along with City Clerk Services Manager Faviola Medina, said 80% of the cities in the state appoint their clerk and just three cities in the county have an elected clerk. Both women previously served as Poway city clerks.
The position is highly technical, requiring candidates to have a robust knowledge of state and federal laws, election laws and processes, the Brown Act, public records, know and apply regulations and laws from the Fair Political Practices Commission, record minutes and ordinances, and requires specific educational requirements.
Both Cobian and Medina confirmed the current city staff does most of the work, while most clerks typically attend council meetings and record the minutes.
Under an elected position, however, Cobian and Medina said a clerk has more potential to be biased and there have been instances of an elected clerk volunteering on specific campaigns, accepting campaign contributions and exhibiting partisanship.
For an appointed position, the person must remain neutral at the risk of being fired.
They also cited Oceanside, where nearly 20 years ago the elected clerk did not record the minutes of the Oceanside City Council meetings for four years, which led to a public records disaster. In that instance, Cobian said the council had little power to compel the elected clerk to act.
“Our office is supposed to be neutral and impartial to anything,” Medina said. “As employees, we don’t partake in any political activities.”
Cobian and Medina said those who are elected come into office with no experience or much knowledge of the job’s requirements, making the transition slow.
However, opponents of Measure C have created a city wide following, even making buttons to lobby against the ballot measure. Residents Kris Wright, Vicky Syage and others have voiced concerns regarding the position.
Wright said during the May 10 council meeting appointed position could lead to corruption, cost more in salary and should remain independent. Wright was concerned with cost, citing several other cities in North County, with most earning more than $100,000 per year.
Wright said the position is not ceremonial and an elected clerk, who is responsible to the voters, is eligible for recall should they fail in their duties.
“Our city clerk deserves to remain an independent office,” Wright said. “With my vote, I can elect a city clerk and if he/she does not do their job then we can recall them.”
Retired clerks Mercedes Martin, of Del Mar, and Debora Cervone, of Encinitas, said it makes no sense to elect a clerk. Martin said voters can install someone who has “no clue” how a city functions, the laws, serves the people and more.
Martin said with an appointed position there is a recruitment process, which finds the best-qualified candidate. Additionally, the job is to be neutral, follow the law and not be influenced to push “through the gray areas,” which could happen with an elected official, Martin said.
Cervone said staff handles the implementation and was not focused on political issues.
“I feel very strongly that it should be an appointed position by the city manager,” Cervone said. “They fall under all the HR (human resources) rules as well.”