A clerk is a senior official of many municipal governments in the English-speaking world. In some communities, the position is elected, but in many others, the clerk is appointed to their post. In almost all cases, the actual title of the clerk reflects the type of municipality he or she works for, thus, instead of simply being known as the clerk, the position is generally referred to as the town clerk, township clerk, city clerk, village clerk, borough clerk, board secretary, or county clerk. Other titles also exist. The office has existed for centuries, though in some places it is now being merged with other positions.
The duties of a municipal clerk vary even more than their titles. Particularly in the United States, it is difficult to fully describe a clerk's duties, because there are hundreds of different jobs a clerk may fulfill. In some U.S. states, there are provisions in the state constitutions delineating the clerk's duties, but in other states, each municipality decides for itself what role the clerk plays, or even, if there need be a clerk at all.
The origins of the position of "clerk" are unclear. In ancient Greece there were secretaries for each polis who read official documents publicly and at the opening of a meeting read public curses. The early keepers of the archives were often called remembrancers, and before writing came into use, their memory was public record. When the early colonists came to America, one of the first offices established was that of clerk. The colony at Plymouth appointed a person to act as a recorder.
In New South Wales state, for over a century, the chief administrative officer of a city or borough was also legally designated the Town Clerk. This continued until 1993, when the NSW Local Government Act 1993 was passed and the Officer became called the 'General Manager of the Local Council/Shire'.
Major Canadian city councils will have a city clerk as chief administrative officer:
In New Zealand, for over a century, the chief administrative officer of a city or borough was also legally designated the Town Clerk. This continued until the 1970s, when the city and county administrative procedures were largely merged and the Local Government Act 1974 declared that every such person (along with his or her rural counterpart, the county clerk) should henceforth be styled the "Chief Administrative Officer".
The Local Government Act 2002 changed the title again, this time to Chief Executive.
In the United Kingdom, the town clerk is the senior administrative officer of the city, borough or town, usually the most senior salaried employee of the council. In most unitary authorities the town clerk has now been renamed the chief executive, although the original name is retained in most smaller towns. The town clerks of the larger county boroughs frequently received knighthoods, and the chief executives of large authorities sometimes still do. The equivalent officer in counties and districts was the clerk to the council (now also designated chief executive) and in (non-town) parishes is the parish clerk, usually part-time, but still a paid official, whose main responsibility is the administration and minuting of parish council meetings and parish council finance. The Town Clerk of London is an important executive position with a staff and significant budget.
On ceremonial occasions, the town clerk wears a gown of black silk ottoman/grosgrain of the lay pattern with panel sleeves and a flap collar. The gown is trimmed with rows of braid and tassels. This gown is similar to the gown of undergraduate fellow and gentleman-commoners in the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The town clerk also wears a wig similar to that of barristers.
In the United States, the clerk often serves as the official keeper of the municipal records, and as such, is sometimes described as the "historian" of the community. Sometimes the Clerk's Office is limited to just presenting the agenda and minutes for the legislative and committee meetings. Official meetings of municipalities can become a serious chore as the activity in the town increases with a larger population. The task of assembling the agenda packets with supporting documents can take several days for a single meeting. It becomes more complicated due to the input and iterative modification by numerous departments and agencies, both within and external to the organization. Software applications that can easily assemble agendas, minutes, and even automatically transcribe the meetings are now becoming more common. Often, these agendas and meeting minutes are downloadable by interested citizens by accessing the organization's website.
There are over 3,200 County Clerks and county equivalent court clerks in the United States. County Clerks can help genealogists and family researchers locate various physical documents including marriage (licenses), divorce, arrest, public, jail, judicial, probate, criminal, and court records.
Clerks may also be responsible for issuing licenses, overseeing local elections, maintaining financial records, serving as registrar of vital statistics, and increasingly, for assuring the transparency of the municipality's conduct of business.
In California, the City Clerk is the local official who administers democratic processes such as elections, access to city records, and all legislative actions ensuring transparency to the public. The City Clerk acts as a compliance officer for federal, state, and local statutes including the Political Reform Act, the Brown Act, and the Public Records Act. The City Clerk manages public inquiries and relationships and arranges for ceremonial and official functions.
In Illinois, clerks may also exist on the township level, which is a subdivision of the county. Such clerks are sometimes required to serve more than one governmental unit, due to the often overlapping jurisdictions that exist in Illinois.
In Massachusetts, the Town Clerk is the chief election official of a town and the keeper of permanent and vital records. The duties of Town Clerks vary slightly in each community. Massachusetts clerks who have been in office five or more years may be elected by special ballot initiative to a lifetime term with mandatory retirement at age 70, after which they may remain in office if they run for successive terms.
New York state law provides for elected Town and County Clerks who have separately defined responsibilities. For example, marriage licenses and dog licenses are issued by town clerks while business certificates and real property deeds are maintained by county clerks. Appointed historians are also required at each level. City clerks may administer elections but, outside cities, county election commissioners head the election apparatus.