The Municipal Clerk truly is a community’s jack-of-all-trades, often overseeing multiple departments and performing numerous tasks daily to keep local governments and public services running smoothly and efficiently. Conversations With Clerks is a continuing DeCoder series in which we talk with Municipal Clerks from across the country to learn more about their unique experiences and what it takes to be effective and successful in their roles.
This issue’s featured clerk:
Elizabeth Dreaper, RMC
Dobbs Ferry, NY
Can you tell us a bit about Dobbs Ferry?
Dobbs Ferry is a small village in Westchester County, NY on the Hudson River. This year is our sesquicentennial –or 150th birthday –and we are celebrating our village with all sorts of events throughout the year. Other than being a great place to live, I think we are best known for playing a big role in the Revolutionary War serving as a headquarters at one time for George Washington and his troops. Speaking of George Washington, I was recently moving furniture around and cleaning my office on a weekend and I found a framed handwritten letter from him. It was amazing… I was shaking!
Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a municipal clerk in Dobbs Ferry. Is it something that you aspired to, or did you take a different path to get to the position?
It’s been a crazy path, actually. Right out of high school, I joined the Marine Corps and when I got out, I had a bunch of different jobs. One of them was janitor at my church. I remember one day looking at the bulletin board there and I saw an index card that said that the Village of Dobbs Ferry was looking to hire an administrative person. So, I thought maybe it’s a sign — I’m in a church!
I called and they had two open positions, one for village clerk and one for a receptionist. After an interview they asked me, “which job do you want?” And I said, clerk, I guess.
So, the job actually ended up being deputy clerk and they hired me in August of 2003.
Then in April of 2004, I was promoted to village clerk because the administrator at the time was “administrator/clerk”, and the village did not reappoint that individual as administrator. At that point I was told, you’re the clerk now. So, it happened pretty quickly but fortunately I was doing a lot of the clerk work already, so it was actually a pretty easy transition.
What do you like most about your job?
I really like the interaction with the residents. When I first started, I was horrified because you sometimes heard people screaming at the counter about all sorts of things. You quickly learn though that the best way to deal with unhappy residents is to just talk to them and learn what their problem is. All people really want is to be heard. Even if you give them an answer they don’t like, they’ll often just say, “hey, thank you so much for talking to me.”
So, I’ve developed the attitude that if somebody comes to my office, I want them to leave happier than they were when they came in. That’s really helped me a lot in this job and now the residents know that somebody’s listening to them and cares about their concern.
What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen as clerk over the years?
Technology has definitely changed. When I first started here that people had typewriters on their desks. Of course, now we all have computers, but we didn’t even have scanners until I think 2012. That created a problem with managing records. All the records prior to computers and scanners, you’d have to find the hard copy. They didn’t have anything saved on a computer – it was all typewritten letters. So, we’ve come far.
What has been an accomplishment that you are proud of?
Digitizing our records is really important to me. So, years ago I had gotten a grant to digitize our board of trustee’s minutes. And the company we worked with told me we had some leftover money and asked if we had some more minutes [to digitize]. With that money we were able to digitize minutes from 1873 to present date and upload them to our General Code [eCode360] site. Now everyone can view them. It’s fantastic.
Has eCode360® been helpful to you and your staff?
It’s cut down on people making visits and asking questions which is good. For example, when people submit a [FOIA] request or want a copy of a document, I tell them they can access them online and that the information is at their fingertips [on eCode360]. So that’s made a huge difference. [Our online code] has also been helpful in showing local laws that have not yet been [codified]. So, people can see what is in progress even though it’s not yet in the code.
How important is it for you as a clerk to have an up-to-date municipal code?
For us, it’s especially important for our building department and inspectors. They refer to the code every day for something. I have to say that having [an online code] has been fantastic because it has given me sort of superpowers to do multi-municipal code searches. I’m often asked, what are other communities doing so now it’s easier for me to find out what everybody else is doing without having to call several different municipalities. I can just punch in what I’m looking for and I have this information at my fingertips, which has proven to be extremely helpful.
What advice would you give to new clerks coming in?
I would say it’s very important to be patient and understanding. I always try to put myself in the position of the person who needs something from us. They may not have a computer or can search for things on their own, so they need to come in and ask. And there’s never a dumb question. So, you have to listen to what people are saying and do your best to help them –and always do so in a professional manner.
And I would tell new clerks to take advantage of your fellow clerks. I don’t really think anybody would ever refuse a phone call or a question from someone [just starting out]. When I first started, I would have been horrified to call somebody who was a clerk for 20 years to say, hey, can you help me out with this? But it’s really not like that. Fellow clerks are very willing to help. In association meetings, I make a point of walking around the edge of the room and talking to all the people– many who are new—and I say where are you from? Come over here and meet these people. It’s about helping them not be scared and gain confidence. That’s important.
Is education also important?
Things in local government can change really quickly so it’s important to be educated, to go to conferences and talk to other people. Laws change frequently. For example, who thought this cannabis [dispensary] issue was going to come up? That’s a totally new subject and you have to learn about it and how other communities are handing it.
What is on your bucket list?
My family is mostly from England, and I’ve never been there. So I would love to go to Liverpool and Manchester, and I would love to see Manchester United play at their stadium.
What is the best kept secret about Dobbs Ferry?
If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret!