The Los Angeles City Clerk Should Be An Elected Official

The Office of the Los Angeles City Clerk is established in the Charter at Section 280. It’s a powerful position. Per Section 281 the Clerk’s duties include keeping City records safe, organized, and available for public inspection as well as the more familiar duty of administering elections.

Per the Charter1 the Clerk is appointed by the Mayor, rather than elected, subject to approval by City Council. In turn this makes the Clerk indebted to the Mayor and Council for their job and therefore open to improper influence or the appearance of improper influence.

So for instance, when the Clerk rejects the ballot-inclusion petitions of eighteen incumbent-challenging Council candidates for avoidable technical reasons in a single election, it’s hard not to entertain the possibility that the Clerk is protecting the interests of the same incumbents with the unqualified power to fire or to retain them.

And it’s not easy to get an LA City Clerk to consider the interests of ordinary Angelenos. Because the position is appointed the Clerk doesn’t have to worry about pleasing voters, only the Mayor and the Council. For instance, the Clerk’s response to the flurry of ballot petition rejections was essentially that candidates needed to take more care with their signatures.

It’s not in the interest of incumbents to have challengers on the ballot, but it’s obviously in the interest of the people of Los Angeles. Imagine having a Clerk who cared for our interests, who facilitated challengers qualifying for the ballot rather than essentially dismissing the idea that there’s a problem at all when eighteen ballot petition rejections in a single election are rejected.

Just for instance the Clerk might develop a voter validation app that signature gatherers could use in the field to allow people to check their voter registration status. Such an app might even allow immediate voter registration so that everyone could be sure a signature will be validated. There are dozens of other ways the Clerk’s office could facilitate challengers qualifying for the ballot, none of which require a Charter amendment to implement.

Another example has to do with the fact that presently the Charter makes the Clerk the custodian2 of the City’s records. The Clerk provides excellent access to historical records stored in the City Archives in Piper Technical Center, but outrageously restricts access to current records if elected officials request it.3

But as long as the Clerk owes favors to the Mayor and City Council, or appears to, there’s no incentive at all for them to help us in these ways, or essentially any other ways. If the Clerk were an elected office, though, they wouldn’t owe their job to the other electeds. They’d be responsive to political pressure in an immediate way that’s just not possible with appointed officials.

Unlike other proposals we’ve made, this one would be relatively simple to pull off, although not easy. First, we wouldn’t be breaking any new ground. California already doesn’t require cities to have appointed Clerks and, according to the City Clerks’ Association of California, roughly a third of California cities, both charter and general law, have elected clerks.

So while this change would require a Charter amendment, it’s a simple one. We would amend Section 202 to include the City Clerk on the list of City officials elected at large and delete Section 280, which makes the Clerk appointed. Getting a proposed amendment on the ballot is as hard as ever, but don’t forget that the Council can also place measures on the ballot. Electing a progressive majority in 2022 and pressuring them into promoting this one is likely to be easier than collecting enough signatures.

By the way, you may have noticed a paradoxical aspect of this proposal. One of the goals in having an elected Clerk is to insulate the office from pro-incumbent incentives, but of course an elected Clerk is also an incumbent, and may well be incentivized to protect their own electoral interests over the interests of Angelenos. This is a hard problem to solve, maybe impossible, and not just in Los Angeles but in democracy generally.

On the other hand, even if it turns out to be a serious matter, at least the Clerk would be subject to political pressure, which ought to counter-incentivize concern for voter interests. If political pressure forces the Clerk to be sufficiently transparent, any kind of fiddling is less likely than otherwise. Also, even if the problem is unsolvable at least we’ll have only one elected with the power to fiddle with elections rather than sixteen of them. It’s not perfect, but it’s far, far better.

  1. Also at Section 280.
  2. I am glossing over the long, complex, technical meaning of this term in this context. It’s the subject of a future post on a different blog and would only distract. But it’s essential.
  3. This may sound paranoid, but it’s not. I have proof e.g. that after some emails released in response to a CPRA request embarrassed Nury Martinez on the Council Floor she had her staff tell Clerk Holly Wolcott to delay access to similar sets of records basically indefinitely. This is a story for another time and place, most likely in a writ petition.

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