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In Fact Daily

Monday, November 26, 2001 by

City Clerk Shirley Brown

By David Ansel

When Shirley Brown responded to a job listing for City Clerk for the City of Austin, she thought she was simply testing the waters of the employment market from the safe shores of Sioux City, Iowa. When she was appointed to the post in January 1999, she left her home state and settled in Austin. “It was a major lifestyle change coming from a community of 90,000. It feels huge to me to be part of Austin.” An initial management study of the Office of the City Clerk (OCC) loaded her plate with hundreds of process improvement tasks, nearly all of which have since been implemented. “When I came to Austin, one of my assignments from Council was that they wanted the Clerk’s Office to be on the cutting edge in the entire U.S.”

The City Clerk’s best-known function is its provision of support services to the City Council. Aside from administrative responsibilities for the Council Office, the OCC supports the Council during all City Council meetings, preparing and publishing minutes, distributing copies of agenda packets and RCAs (requests for Council action), audio taping meetings and registering citizens to speak before the Council. Streamlining those inherited responsibilities was among Brown’s first tier of tasks, but plenty of work remains to be done.

“Our next step is to set up a one-stop shop for Council members. We really sense that we didn’t support the new Council members in June,” says Brown. “Right now, they have to wade through a big organization to get anything done, and that’s very difficult and time consuming for new Council members. The answer is to bring all the services under one roof. We’re working with the City Manager’s Office to outline all the responsibilities. There are lots of things they need to know: How do you get an item on the agenda? How do you get people on a commission? How do you get a cellphone or a computer? How do you set up an office? How do you hire a staff? We won’t be doing all those things, but we’ll be providing all the connections for them. Currently, it’s not an efficient way to do business.” In addition to these Council service improvements, Brown has been working with City Manager Jesus Garza and consultants to deliver a fully electronic agenda, where Council members will be able to hyperlink to all agenda attachments on their laptop computers. “Our interest in this project is in capturing all the agenda information for permanent records.”

Indeed, record keeping is one of the OCC’s most important and resource-consuming tasks. The OCC’s Records Center stores over 50,000 cubic feet of archives, and its staff is responsible for retrieving, transferring and storing records from all City departments. According to Texas open records law, many documents must be retained permanently, so the OCC finds itself in the business of archival preservation. “Many of these documents are over 100 years old, so we need to understand how to handle these materials, about humidity and temperature.” A massive two-year-long conversion to digital format is nearly 80 percent done. When complete, the hard copies will be destroyed. Wasted storage space is only one justification for the digital conversion. The OCC currently receives 13,000 annual requests for documents from city customers, lawyers, developers and citizens. Digital retrieval will offer a drastic efficiency gain.

“I see that [records management] as the future of my office. We’ve got one of the most valuable products that the city has for the public: information.” According to Brown, keeping records is only half of the equation. Easy retrieval of information by internal clients and the public is the other part. “Otherwise, scanning becomes a very expensive file cabinet. It only has importance when it changes the way you do business, empowering people to do searching and retrieval themselves.” The OCC also provides comprehensive records management consulting services to City departments.

The OCC also carries out the very labor-intensive task of holding City elections—though they had little involvement in the November 6 elections, as the mayoral ballot was simply added to the Travis County bonds ballot. Since the OCC has no specific election staff, election duties are performed in addition to staff’s normal routine. “We have to recruit a thousand election workers and set up over two hundred precinct sites. Elections are so labor intensive that we’ve got to simplify it. We’ve redone all our databases to control election logistics.” Like the host of a poorly attended party, no one would be more disappointed in low voter turnout than the OCC and Shirley Brown. When we spoke on the morning of November 6, she had heard disappointing voter turnout estimates. “I thought people might be feeling a patriotic need to express their opinion. Mayor Watson was telling us a story that he had recently been discussing elections with an official from South Africa, and this official was lamenting how their voter turnout was dropping off . . . to 85 percent! And we think we’ve had a good election with 10 percent!” (The turnout for the November election was close to 14 percent in Travis County.) Brown remarked, “I’d like to see it tied to car registration, where we’d block your registration if you don’t vote!”

Despite apparent numerical evidence of the unconcern of Austin’s citizenry, Brown sees things differently. “I think the involvement of the citizens is amazing. In most communities, there is apathy and indifference. You see it when you’re in Council at 10:00 p.m. still to find two hundred citizens waiting. Small towns are mostly run by vocal minorities. Here, there are environmental groups and neighborhood associations, and the decision makers get a lot of information from a lot of perspectives, which makes for great democracy. It really beats when decision makers are only listening to the vocal few and playing to that audience. This is a great way to do government. I’m also amazed at the education of the citizenry. Everyone at Council speaks with authority and research, with well-spoken and succinct points.”

Brown has two sons, Chris, who lives in Austin, and Sean, who continues to live in Sioux City. She is an avid quilter and creates quilts from the fabrics she collects on all her travels. She is currently working on a bluebonnet quilt.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Questions about Police Monitor candidates . . . The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is calling on activists to ask Mayor Gus Garcia to reject both Iris Jones and Chris G. Wittmayer for the position of Police Monitor. The two finalists both currently serve as city attorneys, Jones in Prairie View and Wittmayer in Dallas. Both have spent most of their legal careers representing government entities, which taints them in the eyes of the ACLU, according to spokesperson Ann Del Llano. Jones led the Austin City Attorney’s office from 1990 to 1992 before going into private practice and then moving to Prairie View. Wittmayer, says the ACLU, has worked for Dallas since 1992 and served as an Army lawyer before that . . . What the Wall Street Journal says about downtown Austin . . . The venerable financial newspaper reports that some financial analysts think Cousins Stone’s Congress at Fourth project is too risky for the current economy. Reporter Ray Smith points out that the vacancy rate for high end office space in our fair city was recently reported at 17.2 percent and that only 90,000 square feet of the 525,000-square-foot state of the art building has been pre-leased. But Smith quotes company president R. Dary Stone as saying he expects the economic recovery to begin in mid-2002, in time for the real estate investment trust to entice many more lessees before completion in late 2003. WSJ quotes Stone as saying the 33-story building will be “the most incredible project the city has seen and probably will ever see.” So, does that mean that CSC will be offering the city, or anyone else, a really good deal on its vacant buildings?

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