Iowa City Clerk calling it a career
Marian Karr stayed late, offered guidance, promoted transparency
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IOWA CITY — After long Iowa City Council meetings wrapped up late at night, members of the public, city staff and elected officials filed out of City Hall to head home for the night.
All except one.
For more than 30 years, City Clerk Marian Karr stayed, preparing official records like voting results and minutes, while the meeting was still fresh in her head.
Karr was always the last one to leave on Tuesday council nights, former Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said.
“There was many a late night city council meeting when the public staff and council would stagger out of the building when Marian would stay behind until the early hours of the morning huddled over her office computer,” Hayek said.
Those late nights have come to an end for Karr, who is retiring Friday after serving as clerk since 1983. Her career, which began as a deputy clerk in 1979, has spanned six city managers, four city attorneys and 14 mayors.
“She was unflappable. She was easily able to handle anything that was thrown at her,” said John Balmer, a former mayor who was on council when Karr was both hired as a deputy clerk and appointed city clerk. “She was truly a professional and a class act the whole way and she’ll be hard to replace, I guarantee you.”
“FROM THEN IT’S HISTORY” — Marian Karr
Children often grow up with dreams of becoming a ballerina or baseball player, not necessarily working in city government. In fact, Karr didn’t even begin her career, after graduating from the University of Iowa, with the intention of becoming a city clerk.
After working for ACT, the university and United Way in various roles, the decision to apply for the open deputy clerk position came down to a simple motivation that her previous job didn’t have — a benefit package for her young family.
Additionally, Karr said when she applied for the deputy clerk job and learned more about it, she could see tie-ins to her studies in journalism and communications at UI and liked that she’d be working with the public.
“It was an open position and so the opportunity presented itself. I never thought I’d move up from deputy to clerk but also didn’t envision staying here for 37 years but there you are,” Karr said.
“YOU’RE IN THE TRENCHES” — Matt Hayek
The role of a city clerk is a behind-the-scenes job, often not coming with much public attention or many accolades.
Karr said a good council meeting for her was one where she didn’t have to say a thing. She said her silence at a meeting meant the council members and city staff were well prepared for each agenda item.
Still, the role of a city clerk is a vast one. Council member Susan Mims, who is heading up the search committee tasked with finding a new city clerk, said she was “astounded” when she saw all the responsibilities listed in the incoming clerk’s job description.
The city clerk is Iowa City’s record keeper, among many other roles. She also said her office does a lot of listening and redirecting of residents who come to it for help.
“That’s the key role that we serve here, is getting the people to the right spot. If we can’t help them then we can help get them to that right spot,” Karr said.
Since she’s been a city clerk, Karr said the role hasn’t necessarily changed but certainly expanded with the addition of new technologies. She said the methods of keeping and accessing public records especially have changed over the years.
“When I started here we went from lots of hard copies and carbon paper,” Karr said. “We went from that to microfilm to now scanned digital images and those are available now 24/7.”
Another role Karr has taken on is teaching the new council members, who often have no experience in city government, about their responsibilities. Hayek said he had a standing phone call with Karr before each council meeting to make sure he understood all the agenda items.
“She had a great sense of humor, she took her job very seriously but she could take a joke and was fun to work with and that’s important because there’s a lot of stress surrounding council meetings. They go long and there is plenty of drama and pressure,” Hayek said.
“HERS WAS ALWAYS AN EASY EVALUATION” — John Balmer
The city clerk is just one of three positions that the council directly appoints — with the city manager and city attorney being the other two.
“What other place can you vote for your bosses? Really, think about this: you vote for your boss every two years,” Karr said.
Balmer said he remembers Karr was appointed city clerk because she stood out as simply the most capable. He added that her performance review evaluations were always easy to complete.
“She was a true professional and did her work in a very understated way. You didn’t hear anything about that office in a negative fashion, that’s for sure,” Balmer said.
Karr carried a reputation for creating the culture of an open and accessible local government, especially when it came to public records. Hayek said that while all municipalities are governed by open records laws, he believes Iowa City’s materials are “carefully organized” and the clerk’s office very responsive.
“Iowa City operates at the highest level of transparency and public access” Hayek said. “Marian Karr was the heart of that operation for more than three decades.”
“WE WILL MISS HER” — Susan Mims
In her retirement, Karr said she’s most excited for not looking at the clock as much because much of her job has been driven by deadlines and scheduling others.
Rather, she said she hopes to look at the clock to simply keep track of her grandchildren’s recitals and volleyball and basketball games.
“I’ll switch to a grandma role,” Karr said. “It’s been a good run. It’s been a great job.”
Hayek, who himself went through the transition out of local government, said getting used to suddenly free Tuesday nights might be tough at first for Karr, since this job has spanned more than half her life. He even suggested, with a laugh, that she upgrade her cable package.
“Though she will go through a period of adjustment, she‘s got some exciting chapters ahead of her,” Hayek said. “She’s not going to be sitting around twittling her thumbs. She’s earned this.”
Mims said she believes there will be a learning curve for the next clerk, compared to the years of experience Karr brings to work every day.
“We are going to miss her greatly,” Mims said. “You do not immediately replace 30 plus years of institutional memory and relationships.”
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