Archive for Thursday, May 6, 2004

They don’t realize the stuff we handle’

Eudora’s city clerks keep Eudora running from the other side of the counter

May 6, 2004

As three of Eudora's city clerks sat on a bench Monday afternoon outside Eudora City Hall, the city's electrical superintendent, Eldon Brown, joked that the porch roof might come down because of the magnitude of the people underneath it.
"These are the three most important people in Eudora," Brown said.
As city clerks, former clerks JoAnn Becker and Arlene Lawson, as well as current City Clerk Donna Oleson, have juggled various duties.
"You wear many hats," Oleson said. "They don't realize the stuff we have to handle."
Eudorans will have an opportunity to get a glimpse of the city's offices Friday during an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday at City Hall, 4 E. Seventh St. The event is part of a week recognizing the nation's city clerks.
As city clerks, Becker, Lawson and Oleson have been responsible for jobs ranging from overseeing the city budget to billing utility customers to selling cemetery lots.
"That can be hard to deal with -- especially when it's their son or daughter or a baby -- and then go back to your job," Oleson said.
Dealing well with the public, for better or for worse, has been an important part of the job. That was especially true for Lawson and Becker, who worked together as city clerk and assistant alone in the then-smaller city office, where people would come through to pay bills or just to chat.
"Everybody would come and talk to you, and you'd forget what you were doing," Lawson said.
But working for the city also meant some people automatically assumed clerks to be the enemy. One of the funniest -- and longest-running -- complaints comes around each summer, Oleson said. Many residents complain, thinking their high electric bill is because they're paying for the CPA carnival rides rather than from the air conditioning used during the hot season.
Clerks have to field complaints when fees go up.
"They don't realize Eudora doesn't have the revenue coming from parking meters, etc.," Becker said. "People don't realize we don't get that much revenue (from commercial endeavors)."
That point was made apparent in the 1980s, when Eudora lost its lumber yard in a fire.
"I remember I thought, 'My God, I don't know how we can operate without it,'" Lawson said.
During the time span the three women have served as city clerks, the duties hadn't changed all that much, they said, but rather the volume of what they did. When JoAnn Becker began working for the city in the late 1960s, she said about 600 residents were billed for utilities by hand until the early 1970s, when the office got a billing machine.
Now that Oleson oversees about 2,000 bills, the process is computerized, with automatic meter reading coming in the future. Moreover, Oleson is pleased with a pull-out stand added to the City Council desks to accommodate her laptop computer. By contrast, Lawson and Becker remember using shorthand to take notes at meetings.
Despite technological changes over the years, city clerks are still expected to keep tabs on the budget.
"It's hard to keep a handle on what this person has budgeted for this department -- that's a job in itself," Oleson said.
Crunching numbers was one of the aspects of being a city clerk Lawson and Becker said they enjoyed most.
"I could be off down here, and I'd go home and go to bed, and I could get up and solve it," Lawson said.
City clerks were often asked to solve other problems, too, sometimes unrelated to city business, like telling the caller the number to the post office or someone's address
"Because 'We know everything,'" Oleson said.
As the city grew, the clerks acknowledged it became harder and harder to keep tabs on the people and events in Eudora. And that went for the city itself, too, as the number of employees and responsibilities grew.
But the relationship among the clerks remained close, they said.
"You think of it as your extended family," Oleson said.
Becker, who worked with then-assistant city clerk Oleson before retiring in 1998, said she thought of her apprentice as a daughter. Lawson, who took on Becker as her assistant in 1968 before retiring in 1988, said likewise.
Eudora's predominance of women in the profession including, Lawson's predecessor, is not unusual. Go to a clerk's convention and you'd likely see a room full of women, they said.
What was becoming less common, they said, were clerks like Lawson and Becker who stayed on the job for 25 to 30 years before leaving or retiring. The tradition of understudies taking over for their mentors was changing, too.
"They pretty much passed (the job) down," Becker said.
Although Oleson actively applied for the position, the lifetime Eudoran had known Becker and Lawson through her other job.
"I remember these guys coming to aerobics class," Oleson said.
The method of recruitment was more casual in the past: Becker said Lawson approached her about the job in the grocery store. Lawson began her tenure with the city when her predecessor, Dorothy Lee Wolf, asked her to help out in the city offices. When Lawson returned from vacation, she had quite a surprise.
"I saw her in the post office, and she said, 'Oh, we hired you,'" Lawson said.
Throughout their collective service to Eudora, the clerks emphasized that despite the problems that cropped up when dealing with the public, maintaining a good rapport with people on the other side of the counter remained paramount.
"I feel like we're here to help people," Oleson said. "If someone has a problem, we do what we can to help them out."

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