OP clerk seeks help to improve customer service

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By Anna Lothson

Staff Reporter

The village clerk position in Oak Park could be best described as the gatekeeper of village hall.

It's the first place most people look when they have a question. A visit might often include help from Village Clerk Teresa Powell and/or one of her four staff members. What most people might not know, however, is that Powell and her team is working with 60 percent fewer staff members — from 10 down to five — than when she started as clerk in 2009.

"I think we've got to the point where it's difficult to serve the village in the best way possible," Powell said in an interview Monday.

For that reason, the village clerk briefly addressed the village board at a meeting last month to introduce the concept of adding another full-time position to the clerk's office to help address some of the workflow gaps that occur because of the slim staff.

Powell, who's also an active participant in the village outside her clerkship, said her staff is doing all they can to keep up with the constant demand, but there comes a point where people may have to wait longer than they want to get a question answered or reach the proper person.

"The biggest frustration I hear is people getting machines and not getting a person," Powell said.

Several departments have staff members out in the field working, so they are not necessarily at their desks. This can add to delays.

Early in her career, Powell learned the power of cutting through red tape and getting answers for voters when she clerked for U.S. Rep. Abner Mikva, who served as White House counsel under President Bill Clinton. Powell helped get answers at the federal level and she has the same dedication for her village.

"Customer service. That's what I'm really focusing on here," she said. "The clerk's office has lost 60 percent of our office since I've started. We have a very agile and talented staff at maintaining services."

The staff has decreased since 2009, because the village board has not budgeted to fill vacant positions. It left Powell's department with the same amount of work but fewer hands. The clerk's office has been without a deputy clerk for three years as Powell's right-hand staffer functions more as an executive secretary.

"I'm trying to give the direction in the best possible way to board members to say, 'How do we fix this?'" Powell said.

 Powell hopes to add a staff member who acts as a problem solver for not only the clerk's office, but communicates with other departments to relay answers back to the public.

Basically, this person would be the point person for finding answers quickly and, when answers can't be found quickly, be ready to explain why.

"You can't always give people the answer they want, but you can explain to them, if it's a no, what the rationale is," Powell said. "When people understand why, they are more understanding."

The clerk's office is the source of many vital records, certifications and most importantly, the village's corporate seal, which has been used since 1902.

In addition to being responsible for recording the proceedings of all village board meetings, the village clerk also monitors the village's compliance with the Illinois Open Meetings Act and the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The clerk's office also is responsible for physically issuing building licenses and permits, coordinating license-related inspections, collecting fees for items like business licenses and permits and administering special event applications. The clerk also completes administrative tasks for advisory boards and commissions.  

The clerk is also the keeper of elections and a go-to person to ensure the village manager is informed about other items that pass through the clerk's office. The clerk's office is run independently from other departments, but there is a lot of crossover in terms of ensuring services are delivered.

Powell believes her request will align with what the board wants to see for the village since the board identified improving customer service as a top priority. She plans to present an outline of how the village should reaffirm the role of the office and make it function in the manner Powell believes would best serve taxpayers.

"I don't want to change what I'm doing," she stressed. "I was to reaffirm what I'm doing and make sure it's within the board's thinking."

This doesn't mean she isn't open to "reconfiguring" how the clerk's office is run. A new position would help achieve her goals, she said, and help address customer service gaps at village hall where "things get lost in the shuffle."

"If we make sure answers get to people it would really make a difference. …We have made great strides in online services," Powell said. "But there's always a point where there is a question."

Email: anna@oakpark.com Twitter: @AnnaLothson

Reader Comments

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Justine from Oak Park  

Posted: August 9th, 2013 7:42 PM

I'd also add that clearly this department was overstaffed and if its been functioning with 50 % manpower since 2009 then it should continue. Do whatever is necessary to appropriately compensate those who have picked up the slack but don't add more to the villages very expensive benefits package and union roles by adding unnecessary employees. I think the Clerk just wants more people to rule to make herself feel important. It's irresponsible.

Justine from Oak Park  

Posted: August 9th, 2013 7:33 PM

Perhaps they can hire someone who understands basic math and percentages....last time I checked, a reduction from 10 to 5 equates to 50%. Lol!

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 9th, 2013 1:44 PM

Nothing libelous, James. If you are able to dispute the accuracy of my postings, please do so without restraint. Having worked in the code department with Cole, I am keenly aware of his talent for fish portraits. This doesn't involve "old tricks of bashing people" or "spreadng rumors" but rather offering insights in to the operations at Village Hall that I am able to relate. The trustees were made of Cole's activites and chose not take any action. I thought Jon Hale did a service to the community and taxpayers by pointing out how Cole's plan failed to address the economic realities of the Village of Oak Park entering in to the trolley bus business. Trustee Hedges also made some pointed comments in oppostion. Check the record!


Posted: August 9th, 2013 12:38 PM

Here we go again Coughlin. Liable much? Up to your old tricks of bashing people in public forums who have jobs you don't quite understand. And for the record, Hale facied himself as an expert on everything (not the first trustee) and thought everything he didn't think of was a folly. Stop spreading rumors about people in public forums before it comes back to bite you. Troll.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 9th, 2013 10:28 AM

You would be correct. While working in the Code Enforcement department, Rob would pass the time during his work day drawing pictures of fresh water fresh fish which he proudly displayed and shared with co-workers. There is little in his prior work history indicating that he would be quailfied for the position he currently holds but was indeed favored by both Barwin and Heise. The goal was breaking the employees' bargaining unit and Cole offered or was recruited. In the past, Oak Park has employed a number highly qualified individuals to serve as assistant village manager including Jim Talley,Velga Drillis-Eziz, Peter Dame and Ray Wiggins. It's likely Cole's salary doubled thanks to this promotion. You may recall Rob failed to sell an idea to the trustees that Oak Park should spends millions owning and operating a trolley bus system that would run along Lake Street. Thankfully, trustee Jon Hale nixed that by questioning the feasability of such a folly.

Y from Oak Park  

Posted: August 8th, 2013 9:39 PM

Jim Coughlin, if I am understanding you correctly, Rob Cole was handed a job he never would have qualified. If that's correct, he probably receives more than what he was earning as a permit clerk.

Y from Oak Park  

Posted: August 8th, 2013 9:36 PM

Hank, glad you remembered her. She made village hall look friendly. When she lost her job the village became impersonal., You go in, search for anyone who can director you to the general area you are searching for. People who use other people's money, have lots of time to create new ways to spend it. Jewel Food Store got rid of their savings card. Their new idea is sell quality products at the best prices. Simple, clean and very efficient, and no more long lines.


Posted: August 8th, 2013 8:59 AM

I agree that the woman who sat in front and also answered the phone was invaluable. Instead of going around and around trying to figure out with whom I should be talking, she'd direct you to the right person from the start. She probably saved all the other employees a lot of time by not having to deal with folks who were actually needing someone else's assistance.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 10:13 PM

Just to set the record straight, Y. Rob Cole's surprising promotion most likely had a great deal to do with his willingness to take the lead for Village Hall in an unprecedented and hostile attempt seeking to decertify one of the Oak Park Employees' bargaining units. He employed some highly questionable tactics that had strong approval and backing from both the former manager and village attorney, the Village president and board of trustees. They were not successful. Cole, who at the time was part of the unit, saw his effort overwhelming defeated by the membership. He does appear to have been rewarded for trying. Cole was promoted from performing duties of a permit clerk to serving in the managers' office; along with a significant salary increase. Not likely that any of the current staff would be offered such an opportunity especially, if like Cole, they possessed no prior experience, training or educational background normally required for the position.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 9:46 PM

Saturday morning and an occasional evening hours should be scheduled for all Village departments that provide direct services to residents. It's a problem for working folks to take care of business at Village Hall since so many are working during the day. Of course, if the aim is to further reduce staff levels and instead direct people to engage with departments via the Village's website; there's no reason to consider the suggestion.

Y from Oak Park  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 5:44 PM

Technology is not the answer. Get a dedicated worker like the woman who use to greet people with a smile, answer phone so a computer didn't, knew most of the answers and was very understanding. People say they are working with 30, 40, 50 percent less staff, but never think maybe the extra staff was never needed in the first place. For those hard working clerks at Village Hall, remember, even you may be able to go from clerk to assistant village manager like Rob Cole was able to.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 2:34 PM

The simple answer to the request for an additional person to coordinate with other departments is no. There should be no need to be running from department to department to get or give information. There has been discussion of creating an enterprise computer system. That is the answer. Until the new system is implemented, temporary help should be used if the critical. There should be a freeze on adding full time clerical or administrative positions until the village faces the reality that it is 15 years behind on information management.

More staff is not the anwer  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 2:22 PM

While I appreciate what you are saying Teresa. We all do what we have to in order to get our jobs done. Many of us do the job of 1.5 to 2 people. That's the way it is. I am not eager for the VOP to hire any more people (at my cost) until they fix the inability of those in their positions to do their jobs effectively. Hopefully the Village Manager can work on the rudeness and inability of many VOP staff to be of true service. Fix whats wrong first, them maybe, just maybe hire more.

Teresa Powell  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 9:47 AM

I appreciate Anna Lothson's article about proposed improvements to customer service at Village Hall, but wanted to clarify that my Executive Secretary has worked for the past 3+ years as my Acting Deputy while continuing to function in her secretarial role as well.


Posted: August 7th, 2013 9:36 AM

If the village wants to concentrate on customer service they should rehire a receptionist to take calls and actually make sure residents are connected to the right departments to begin with.

start at the clerks office, but go throughout the Village Hall  

Posted: August 7th, 2013 8:53 AM

I commend Ms. Powell on the need to be customer focused. I only wish the entire Village Hall would respond that way. Simple things like say hello to someone when they are waiting to be taken care of. When someone takes a number, us the number system, don't let someone jump in line that doesn't have a number. If you don't have an answer, offer to find it in a timely fashion. I have worked for municipalities (this one in fact), sometimes it's the simple things that go the furthest.

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