By Holly South
The 2017 Professional Development Seminar of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries brought together clerks, secretaries and their staff from 33 states and overseas for a six-day conference in Phoenix.
One well-attended and lively session—Clerks Without Borders—highlighted the work of the international attendees. Tim Sekerak, clerk of the Oregon House of Representatives who helped organize the session, was grateful that “so many talented people came so far to share their experiences and different parliamentary styles and approaches to the legislative process.”
Representatives from the Navajo Nation, Canada, Australia and Palau, most of whom were first-time attendees at the PDS, spoke on issues as wide-ranging as decorum, voting procedures, succession planning, staff training, advising members and social media. All of the comments served to highlight some interesting differences, but also the many similarities among the legislatures. As François Arsenault, president of the Canadian Association of Clerks-at-the-Table, observed, “These issues arise in every parliament although the nuts-and-bolts rules can differ.”
Of particular interest to attendees was hearing from the speakers about the structure of their legislatures and the influences on the parliamentary bodies in each country. Most countries represented have origins in the British parliamentary system. The parliaments of Australia and Canada and the Palau National Congress, are, like the U.S., bicameral legislatures. Palau, a western Pacific nation in free association with the U.S., also has an executive branch similar to that of the U.S.
Idah Burnside, a legislative secretary for the Navajo Nation, noted that in contrast to its size—the nation of more than 300,000 extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and is approximately the size of West Virginia—its government is relatively small. The unicameral Navajo Nation Council consists of 24 delegates and a speaker. In the council’s employ are advisers to the standing committees and subcommittees, and reporters to transcribe the proceedings and meetings. One council committee, Naabik’it’ati’, refers to the Navajo word meaning “discussion.”
Participants also heard from Leslie Gonye, deputy clerk and sergeant-at-arms of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales and vice president of the Australia and New Zealand Association of Clerks-at-the-Table (ANZACATT). He discussed his chamber’s succession planning and procedural training for staff, which incorporates customized study programs, post-session debriefings, “mock sittings and role plays based on historic proceedings,” and staff rotations to give employees exposure to the various workings of the House. ANZACATT also sponsors a week-long, graduate-level course for parliamentary staff on Parliamentary Law, Practice and Procedure.
Beverley Isles, clerk assistant of Canada’s House of Commons, raised the issue of security. Since the shootings in its Parliament buildings three years ago, Canada shares with the U.S. the need to balance security with maintaining an accessible Parliament—a Parliament that continues to offer a weekly yoga class on Parliament Hill during the summer.
A notable difference among the legislatures represented was the issue of language, which several of the participants addressed. Representatives from the Navajo Nation and Palau each discussed the debate within their chambers over the publication of legislation in their native language (rather than in English). The Navajo Nation Council generally holds discussions in English, but members have begun to request that bills be written in the Navajo language.
And while both English and Palau are the official languages of that country, once the Palau language is completely unified, the hope is to one day issue legislation in that language. The Canadian House of Commons, on the other hand, operates in the two official national languages, publishing in both French and English in print and digital mediums. Clerks must be bilingual and know how to properly call on each of their 338 members (whether Ms., Mrs., Mademoiselle, or Madame). Interpreters are in place at all committee meetings and sittings of the House.
The session’s co-organizer and moderator was Ali Sagraves, who serves as special assistant to the clerk of the Ohio House of Representatives. “We all have so many different approaches but the end product is the same,” she noted. “It’s always interesting to hear from counterparts in other states – and getting to hear from those in other countries is an added bonus.”
Holly South is NCSL’s liaison to the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries.