2000 | Summer Professional Journal | A History of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries

Professional Journal | Volume 6, Number 1 Summer 2000

By Edward A. Burdick, Chief Clerk, Minnesota House of Representatives

The American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries, hereafter in this article called ASLCS or the Society, persuaded me over 20 years ago to compose a detailed history of our organization. After months of research and interviews, the history was presented at the annual seminar in Orlando, Florida, in November, 1979.

That essay was condensed and updated on two occasions for later seminars, once in 1985 and again in 1988. Your Professional Journal Committee has invited me to submit this current and abbreviated version for the summer issue.

Our Society has an exciting and eventful past that should be reviewed with enthusiasm and pride. Being aware of our history helps us plan more effectively for the future.

Roots Date Back To House of Burgesses

The Society will be 57 years old in July, 2000. Perhaps we should say that our Society will be 57 years "young" in July, 2000 when you consider that our profession dates back to 1619 when John Twine was Clerk of the House of Burgesses in the Colony of Virginia.

During the 57 years that our organization has functioned we have witnessed a revolution in the state lawmaking process. Allen Morris, former Clerk of the Florida House, wrote several years ago that legislatures have become better equipped, better staffed, better informed, and more able to be independent of the executive branch. He has further written that Clerks and Secretaries as individuals have made significant contributions to this movement and that our Society has educated each one of us to grow, to adjust, and to appreciate these dramatic changes.

1943 was the beginning of a new period for professional legislative administrators and parliamentarians because, finally, we were united in one self-serving organization with a common purpose, that of improving legislative administration and establishing better lines of communication between the Clerks and Secretaries throughout the nation and its territories.

Quite frankly, our organization, like most organizations, has had some problems over the years. We've had our battles, some good years and some bad years. We've had our disagreements and hard feelings. But finally, we learned to work together and fight our competition and not each other. Today we are strong and united - and we are proud of our accomplishments.

Other Organizations Have Impact On Our History

We need to examine some other organizations that were in existence when our group was formed in 1943. The Council of State Governments was then ten years old, having started at the University of Chicago in 1933.

At that time state legislatures were poorly organized with short sessions and low salaries for members and staff. State lawmaking bodies probably were dominated by lobbyists and special interest groups and no doubt were not a co-equal branch. They were staffed by a highly qualified Chief Clerk or Secretary plus very few administrative assistants. This typical legislative staff was supplemented by people on loan from the executive branch plus numerous part-time patronage people. Clerks and Secretaries then were in a strong position of leadership, were held in high regard by government officials, and had little competition from other legislative staff. As a result, much of the contact between the Council of State Governments and the legislatures in the 1930s was through Clerks and Secretaries.

Meetings between the states were beginning to emerge, first on a regional basis and then on a national basis, and the Council of State Governments had become the vehicle for solving problems shared by all the states. Because of their early involvement with the Council, Clerks and Secretaries attended many of these meetings and participated in the programs.

Subsequently, Clerks and Secretaries started communicating with each other and visiting each other. They arranged annual get-togethers on their own which were poorly attended because obtaining approval for travel was difficult. Other legislative staff directors were later invited to these meetings. We believe this loosely organized group was called the American Association of Legislative Officers but was in existence for only a short period of time in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

We found evidence of another organization called the Legislative Service Conference which was formed in the 1940s in Chicago. Several Clerks and Secretaries were influential in establishing this new organization, helping draft the bylaws and recruiting members; however, they soon lost interest because the group was dominated by bill drafters, reference agency heads, and fiscal officers. Another new staff position called Director of Legislative Council was beginning to show up on the tables of organization in legislative bodies. These Legislative Council directors later took over the leadership of the Legislative Service Conference, much to the displeasure of many Clerks and Secretaries.

The 1955 meeting of the Legislative Service Conference was held in Miami Beach. That year for the first time legislative members outnumbered legislative staff, and consequently a reorganization took place. The name was changed from the Legislative Service Conference to the National Legislative Conference (NLC) to better accommodate legislators.

Clerks and Secretaries played a major role in organizing the new Conference, making certain that staff people would have a voice and that Clerks and Secretaries would share a piece of the action. Several of our peers were named to the executive committee and chaired or served on other important committees.

NCSL Formed in 1974

In 1974 in Albuquerque, the National Legislative Conference merged with two competitive legislative groups into the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the organization with which we are now successfully affiliated. Our Society has retained strong ties with the Council of State Governments on a regional basis and with the National Conference of State Legislatures on a national basis.

Some old timers like to think that Clerks and Secretaries could be called the grandparents of the Conference because of our involvement in the formation of both the old NLC and the new NCSL, and because our Society is 31 years older than the Conference. Again, many of our peers have played a major role in NCSL during its 26-year history and are enthusiastically supportive of its mission.

Secretary of California Senate First ASLCS President

As I mentioned earlier, our group, the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries, was founded in 1943. Joseph A. Beek, Secretary of the California Senate, was elected as our first president. He held that office for 25 consecutive years.

You have probably heard that the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries was mainly a social organization in the early part of its history, but please don't conclude that fun-loving was its only interest. It served useful purposes that should be reported. For one thing, it provided the president, Mr. Beek, with a podium for 25 years to remind Clerks and Secretaries of the importance of their contributions to state government. He challenged them to justify their positions of trust. He warned them as far back as 1943 that their profession would have competition from other staff who would fill newly created positions. He probably had in mind Service Bureau Directors, Legislative Council Directors, leadership staff, and House or Senate administrators. He inspired Clerks and Secretaries to become proficient in their work. He told them to modernize their procedures or someone would replace them who would modernize. He advised them to know more about rules and parliamentary procedure than other staff people. You might say that because of these inspirational meetings, our organization for many years was also an evangelistic society. The gospel message was for Clerks and Secretaries to do a better job.

But it was more than a social society and an evangelistic society. It was also a protective society. I mentioned earlier that our group protected the rights and privileges of Clerks and Secretaries in our dealings with other organizations with which we had an affiliation. The American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries was involved in the successful fight to preserve a place for staff in the formation of the old National Legislative Conference in 1955. You should also know that it was involved to a much greater extent in the fight to protect staff when the merger took place in Albuquerque in 1974 with the formation of the new National Conference of State Legislatures.

Clerks and Secretaries Had Difficulties in 1960s

In all fairness I must report that our organization and individual Clerks and Secretaries were having difficulties in the 1960s. We were not responding to the competition from other staff in our home states. We lost some of our effectiveness with the Council of State Governments and with the old National Legislative Conference. The dominant staff sections were Service Bureau Directors and Legislative Council Directors, and not Clerks and Secretaries. Attendance at Society activities was down and interest was fading. To help revitalize our organization, a national seminar for Clerks and Secretaries, the first professional development seminar for any legislative staff, was held at the State University of New York at Albany in 1967. Albert J. Abrams, Secretary of the New York Senate, sponsored the seminar. Despite the skeptics, 16 people attended.

The annual meeting in Miami Beach the following year, however, attracted only 13 people from nine states. I attended that meeting. We were discouraged and depressed. Now you can understand our enthusiasm when 300 or more delegates from over 40 states and territories register for our seminars.

The actual rebirth of our Society probably took place at that Miami Beach meeting in 1968 when those 13 Clerks and Secretaries vowed to expand activities, promote attendance, and increase liaison among members. Mr. Beek, who then was in poor health, declined to run for reelection. He was named president emeritus and a resolution was adopted thanking him for his 25 years of outstanding leadership. He passed away the following year at the age of 88. History will show that his contributions to this organization have never been equaled.

Award Named After Beek

ASLCS established a distinguished service award in 1983 and named it the Joseph A. Beek Award. Eight Society members have been presented with the award since its inception.

Ward Bowden, Secretary of the Senate of the State of Washington, was elected as the new president in 1968. T. Thomas Thatcher, Clerk of the Michigan House, was named vice president.

An unfortunate happening took place that year. Mr. Bowden, the new president, passed away in the middle of his term while working as Secretary on the floor of the Washington Senate. Vice President Thatcher assumed the duties of president. In 1969, Mr. Thatcher was named to a full one-year term as president. The following year he declined reelection, thereby establishing the custom and usage that presidents of this organization now serve only one term.

But a new course was set for the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries. We truly were "born again." Let's discuss some of our accomplishments in the past 32 years. Permit us to brag a bit.

Presently there are 12 staff sections active in the National Conference of State Legislatures. Today we probably are the envy of these other staff sections. We are better organized. We are more progressive and innovative. We lead in attendance. We think we do more for our members.

This year's professional development seminar in North Carolina is booked as the 34th annual seminar. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that this is the 33rd annual seminar because in 1968 the Society experimented with regional seminars rather than a national seminar. Attendance at Clerks and Secretaries seminars has increased more than 20 times since 1967.

The seminar programs vary from year to year and seem to improve each year. The trend is to utilize some faculty from our own profession. A display of printed materials from various states is frequently featured. This year, breakout sessions by job categories are again being held. A meeting exclusively for Clerks and Secretaries is scheduled. The term "professional development" can rightfully be applied to these meetings. In 1976 a new tradition was established when the annual Society business meeting and election of officers, previously held at the national conference, was rescheduled for the seminar in San Francisco. Another activity that increased the interest in the seminars was the addition of a state dinner to the seminar program. This, too, has now become a tradition. The National Conference of State Legislatures is now taking our group seriously and we receive excellent cooperation and professional assistance from them.

Some of the annual seminars for Clerks and Secretaries are held in state capitol buildings where tours of legislative facilities are conducted, the lawmaking process is demonstrated on the spot, samples of legislative publications are made available, and improvements in technology are announced.

Bylaws Established in 1972

I mentioned earlier that we are more formally organized than other staff sections. We have our own bylaws which were established in 1972 after a long and constructive fight. The purpose of our organization was properly defined in the bylaws and reads: "The purpose of this Society is to improve the administrative effectiveness of State Legislatures and to develop better procedures in enhancing the lawmaking function."

The bylaws provide for a strong Executive Committee, giving responsibilities and authority to the officers and the Executive Committee. The committee now meets quarterly to transact Society business and plan future activities.

Standing orders are published periodically and supplement the bylaws.

Many of our people have been elected to serve as officers or members of the NCSL executive committee. Others have served as chairpersons or members of NCSL standing committees. We now take an aggressive role in the campaign to make sure that Clerks and Secretaries are fairly represented - and our campaigns have been highly successful.

We now have our own separate dues and our treasury shows a healthy balance. We aren't hesitant to spend our money for worthwhile projects. Dues were first established in 1972 after another battle. Prior to that it was difficult to finance our activities and Society officers were expected to pay many of the expenses out of their own pockets.

Logo Designed in 1975

We have our own logo, adopted through a national contest sponsored in 1975 and updated at the 50th anniversary of the Society in 1993. The original contest attracted 25 entries. The logo appears on our business letterhead and on all of our publications. Jewelry was first manufactured in 1976 featuring the logo.

We adopted a Code of Ethics in 1973 and modernized it in 1977. The framed Code of Ethics now hangs in the offices of most Clerks and Secretaries.

Communication among members of the Society is excellent. Over 60 issues of the Legislative Administrator have been produced since the first issue went to press in 1969. A Professional Journal was established in 1996 and ten quality issues have been distributed.

Three weekend workshops have been held: one in Dallas, one in Salt Lake City, and one in Washington, D.C.

We have conducted 11 successful Interparliamentary Sessions with our counterparts from Canada. The last joint meeting was held in Austin, Texas, in 1999. The 1997 session was held in Victoria, British Columbia. Consideration is being given to the establishment of ties with legislative organizations from Mexico, South Africa, Central America, and other foreign locations. International interest is growing.

Our standing committees and special task forces have been active. A glossary of legislative terms was published. A popular directory of Society members with photos, biographies, addresses, and phone numbers is distributed annually.

Associate Members

We created a new category of membership called associate members, and these support staff people have been productive workers in the Society. The bylaws were amended in 1983 to provide a new elected office called associate vice president. An associate member is an assistant or other staff person who works in the office of Clerk or Secretary. The associate member issue coupled with voting rights was very divisive in the 1970s. Today, associate members are well received and outnumber principals at most meetings. They serve on all committees including the Executive Committee. Most standing committees have an associate vice chair. They chair some standing committees, as well as special committees and projects. The inclusion of associate members contributes greatly to the success of the Society, and valuable training is now being provided for assistants and other specialists.

A distinguished service award for associates was established in 1991. Six such awards have been presented at the annual seminar.

Seven innovation awards and seven staff achievement awards have likewise been presented in the 1990s.

Mason's Manual Revision Commission

A special ASLCS commission of 18 members plus two alternate members and three associates is currently producing another revision of Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure. The popular legislative book of rules was first published in 1935 with six subsequent printings. Paul Mason, author, passed away in 1985. A commission of ASLCS members published a revised manual in 1989 after NCSL was assigned the copyright.

Inside the Legislative Process

A valuable research tool called "Inside the Legislative Process" provides information to those who are interested in management and procedures of legislative bodies. The document was first produced in 1979 as a project of the Society. Information is taken from comprehensive surveys of Clerks and Secretaries. Eight surveys have been concluded and the publication is now an annual event with material divided among several topics in a loose leaf binder. This has developed into one of the Society's most successful projects.

Technology Assistance

Sharing technology information useful to state legislatures is one advantage of membership in ASLCS. The Society website created in the late 1990s is being updated and improved constantly thanks to the Technology and Innovation Committee. An e-mail discussion group called "Listserv" is now in existence and helps in gathering instant information from our peers around the country. Seminar programs and discussions feature the latest in legislative technology.

As members of ASLCS, we have gained a new admiration for each other as administrators and parliamentarians. Although we live in a political atmosphere, we have learned to work together in this organization in a non-partisan way. We have one goal in mind: to improve the system that employs us and at the same time improve our own status as professionals.

And with all this increased activity we have not forgotten how to socialize. Our state dinners, our early bird receptions, our hospitality rooms, and other informal gatherings have helped us become working partners. We learn from each other and share problems with each other as friends, not strangers. Our acquaintanceship knows no state or territorial borders.

This review of our history should give us a new respect for our organization, for all its members, and for the trust placed in us by our peers. Our history gives us a better appreciation of the contributions made by others during the past 57 years.

New Members Wanted

We welcome new people, both as members or associate members. We think we can help them. But more than that, we need them and their ideas. Their presence will inspire us to do better. Their involvement will make certain that we don't become complacent or smug. With their help, we can make this organization even better.

The history of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries is truly a success story. Former and current members have accomplished what our founders set out to accomplish way back in 1943. With the help of new members this year, and new members next year, and in all the years to come, the history of this great organization will continue to be a success story.

© Journal of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries