The Independent Interview: Duncan Miller

A view of Paradise Valley Town Clerk Duncan Miller among the records he keeps safe and accessible to both town leaders and the general public. (Special to the Independent)

If something happened and there was no one to record it — did it happen?

Duncan Miller, Paradise Valley town clerk, has dedicated his professional life to the recording of the history of government and through that effort he has become an invaluable part of the municipality he serves.

From the administration of elections and the codification of ordinances to local historian and public information gatekeeper, Mr. Miller knows the ins and outs of the Town of Paradise Valley.

His knowledge is substantial and essential to crafting good policy and carrying out the mantra of conservative government, Paradise Valley town officials contend.

“Although I never planned to become a municipal clerk, I always knew I wanted to work in government,” Mr. Miller said in a May 10 statement. “I have an undergraduate degree in political science and a master’s degree in comparative public administration with a specialization in international relations theory.”

As an aspiring floor page in Washington D.C., Mr. Miller had his eyes set on a career at the federal level.

“When I was in school I thought someday I would work for the federal government, especially after serving as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives during my junior year of high school,” he explained.

“After I was promoted to Head Floor Page I spent much of my free time in the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives absorbing all I could about the history and role of the Clerk of the House. Following graduate school I had an opportunity to apply for a position on Ambassador Bill Richardson’s staff at the U.S. Mission at the United Nations.”

But in the end it was a job offer at the Town of Paradise Valley that rang true to Mr. Miller, he stays.

“I had just accepted a job as deputy town clerk with the Town of Paradise Valley and have stayed with the town ever since,” he said. “This year marks my 20th anniversary with the town and 11th year as town clerk.”

The Town of Paradise Valley Independent asked Mr. Miller a series of questions to better understand the man behind the records. This is what he had to say:

•What are some of the major duties you are in charge as Paradise Valley Town Clerk?

The clerk is a council officer and is one of the positions every municipality must have by law along with town engineer and town marshal. Most of the duties are dictated by law and include some of the most basic government services expected by citizens such as: administration of elections; licensing; codification of ordinances; public records management and public information; secretary to the Council; treasurer; and historian.

•What is your favorite aspect of the position?

I enjoy the detective work in locating the key document that resolves an issue or uncovers the reason why a particular policy decision was made. I see the role of clerk as more of a behind-the-scenes position that provides information to the manager and department directors so that they can effectively and efficiently deliver services to the residents. I think the clerk can also be helpful in offering historical background on the founding principles of the town and the reasons why certain policy decisions were made in order to provide continuity between councils.

•Where did this idea of an official city or town clerk come from?

The position of clerk pre-dates all other public servants in local government, dating back to biblical times. The modern Hebrew translation of clerk is “Reminder or Remembrancer.” A story in the New Testament tells of a town clerk resolving a dispute between the apostle Paul and the people of Ephesus.
In ancient Greece the city secretary read official documents publicly and, at the beginning of city meetings, he would “decree a curse upon anyone who should seek to deceive the people.” To this day, clerks are given statutory authority to administer an oath to tell the truth before public hearings.

The title “clerk” as we know it today derives from the Latin “clericus” meaning scholar, or one who could read and write, and thus serve as a notary, secretary, accountant, and recorder. One of the first acts taken by the American colonists who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts was to appoint a person to act as recorder. The settlers recognized the importance of keeping accurate written records of their agreements, regulations governing land and livestock, the collection of taxes, and the expenditure of town funds.

Today clerks are in the unique position of being the most direct conduit between citizens and their government. They manage the repositories of publicly available records that provide evidence of government decision making and the records that protect property rights of citizens. Moreover, they administer the election process thus allowing voters to choose their local representatives and exercise their rights under the Constitution.

•How does what you do help the municipality operate smoothly?

An informed and engaged public is vital to enacting good public policy and protecting town values. To that end, the town council has prioritized improving government transparency. Over the past three years the council has invested in technology for the Clerk’s Office that has allowed the town to provide more public information online. I encourage residents to visit the town’s Transparency Portal. (http://www.paradisevalleyaz.gov/439/Transparency-Portal) There you will find links to budget and financial information, public meeting agendas, minutes, staff reports, and videos.

By clicking on “Document Search” you can download resolutions, minutes, and ordinances from incorporation to the present day, every Town Reporter, all contracts, and more. If you cannot find the document you are searching for simply fill out and submit a public records request form. The Clerk’s Office will do its best to respond promptly.

There are also multiple opportunities on the town’s website for the public to provide feedback on matters under consideration by town government. On the meeting agenda page, (https://paradisevalleyaz.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx) click” eComment” to leave feedback on an individual item. Your comments will automatically become part of the record and will be viewed by the mayor and council.

•Being in a smaller — but still very astute — municipality what roles do you take on that is not traditionally one filled by a city clerk?

The practice of assigning clerks duties beyond those in statute is not limited to small towns. It seems pretty universal although clerks in Paradise Valley have taken on some unique responsibilities. Helen Marston, the first town clerk, ran town operations out of her spare bedroom. She started a program whereby residents could fill potholes on their street. She would provide the materials and pay 25 cents for each pothole filled. Luckily the Public Works Department keeps our streets in good shape so I do not have to continue that program but I do perform a host of “other duties as assigned” including administration of the town’s website and the sales tax audit program. One of the more unusual projects I have worked on was to help organize a U.S. Air Force flyover for the Goldwater Memorial dedication.

•From a philosophical point of view, what do you think is the most important aspect of being a town clerk?

I think professionalism and impartiality are the most important traits of being a clerk. It is a challenging role in which you must serve multiple masters. I report to the town manager but I also serve the mayor, council, residents, and Arizona law. By that I mean clerks must impartially administer election law whether dealing with an incumbent candidate, a newcomer challenging an incumbent, or a citizens group challenging a council action. The clerk serves as the citizens’ sole point of contact to exercise their rights under the Constitution to vote, to run for office, to propose new legislation, to bar legislation adopted by the council from taking effect, or to recall an elected official. Developing and maintaining a level of professionalism and trust is critical to being successful in this role.

•What is one thing you would like for residents to know about what you do at the Town of Paradise Valley?

I feel honored to work for the Town of Paradise Valley. It is a well-run community dedicated to the principles of limited government, fiscal conservatism, and the protection of property rights and quality of life. The town has maintained these principles through the extraordinary efforts of countless resident volunteers. If you would like to offer your time and expertise to the town, the next mayor and council election will be held in the fall of 2018. Prospective candidates often wait until late winter or spring to begin the process but you may contact me at any time to discuss what is involved and where to start.

If you do not want to run for council but would still like to volunteer, there are a number of committee, commission, and board vacancies each year. One of my other duties is to coordinate the committee appointment process which takes place every spring. I am happy to discuss the various committee roles and notify you when the town is accepting new applications.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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