By Anna Lothson
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."