Albany City Clerk Sonja Tolbert, left, reviews documents with with Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard.
ALBANY, Ga. — For those who look no deeper than the surface of things, Albany City Clerk Sonja Tolbert’s recent designation as a Certified Municipal Clerk by the International Institute of Municipal Clerks might seem trivial, little more than padding for a resume.
But a closer look at Tolbert’s award, and the implications it has on a vital element of city government, offers evidence that this designation carries weight that is already paying dividends.
Through information Tolbert picked up in one of the years of classes she attended to earn CMC certification — and a series of fortuitous and random events - Albany’s Thronateeska Heritage Center will soon become a repository for historical and government documents not only for the city but for government entities throughout the southern portion of the state.
Tolbert’s affiliation with the Georgia Municipal Clerks and Financial Officers Association also has the city among three finalists to host the IIMC’s Region 3 conference in 2014, an opportunity to showcase Thronateeska’s new facility and bring new visitors to the city.
“If I’m not working on my (CMC) certification, none of this happens,” Tolbert, who has served as Albany’s city clerk since March of 2005, said. “Now that things kind of fell into place for us, they’ve taken on legs of their own.”
While Tolbert is one of those keep-your-head-down-and-just-do-your-job kind of officials so vital to an organization, no one who does business on the fifth floor of the downtown Government Center discounts the impact she has.
“I don’t think people realize the hard work that goes into earning a certification like Ms. Tolbert has done, and I don’t think the ordinary citizen understands the value,” Mayor Dorothy Hubbard said. “Because she’s willing to learn more about her profession, the city benefits.”
City Manager James Taylor offers a similar assessment.
“First of all, reaching that level of certification shows that (Tolbert) is dedicated to her job and also to the city,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of effort that goes into that. But it also means when I call on her for information, I know she’s going to get me the answer I need. You have to appreciate someone who really knows their job and does it well.
“But I don’t think people realize that it’s Ms. Tolbert’s knowledge that sometimes keeps us out of trouble. She knows the laws, and she keeps up with the changes from year to year. That’s vital.”
The Monday after she graduated high school, Sonja Lee accepted a full-time position with the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) County Commission. Born in New York (Tolbert still inadvertently slips a little Brooklynese into her acquired Southern drawl), she moved to the north Alabama city with her family when she was 10, and started working part-time with the county government while still in high school.
She stayed at her first job for eight years before marrying Albany native Clifford Tolbert and moving with him to his home. She worked a few part-time jobs before current Water, Gas & Light General Manager and then-interim City Manager Lem Edwards asked her to fill in in the city clerk’s office. She left that position for a period, was called back after the Flood of ‘94 and was named the city’s first assistant city clerk in 1997.
In 2005, when then-City Clerk Sue Hammond retired, Tolbert was appointed to the position. Having started work as soon as she finished high school, Tolbert found a college substitute through the classes offered by the International Institute of Municipal Clerks.
“Since I didn’t have a college degree, I guess I found being able to tackle the (IIMC) classes I had to take a boost to my self-confidence,” Tolbert said. “Georgia law requires (clerks) to take 15 hours (of classes), but getting CMC certification is much more rigorous. You have to acquire 60 points in classes that include tests, and you only get one point for every two in-class hours.
“So this process took years to complete.”
The Georgia Legislature passed a law requiring each governmental entity to designate a person who is responsible for its records management and archiving, and in the 1980s Albany officials, like most other agencies in the state, passed an ordinance designating its clerk as official documents manager.
When Tolbert asked that some records stored in the city’s Law Enforcement Center be brought to her one day and she saw the shape they were in, she declared, “Not on my watch.”
“These important documents were shredded, almost destroyed,” she said. “It became a priority for me to find suitable storage for these vital documents.”
Tolbert was discussing this issue one day when Thronateeska Heritage Center Executive Director Tommy Gregors happened to be walking by her office. He came in and, according to Tolbert, said, “I think I can help you.”
Gregors, too, remembers that fateful meeting.
“I go over to the Government Center from time to time to talk with city and county officials,” he said. “I happened to hear (Tolbert) talking about city records, and we started talking about the process. I told her I wanted to put in a proposal to digitize and store our city documents.”
Gregors talked with others doing similar work and came up with a proposal that would allow his staff to collect, preserve and store official documents and make them easily accessible to government officials and citizens.
“It fit Thronateeska’s mission of preserving this region’s history,” he said.
The city accepted Gregors’ proposal, and soon he was able to purchase “laserfiche” software that allowed for quick and safe copy of documents and bring on archivist Cathy Flohre to manage the process.
When Thronateeska’s storage space started shrinking under the volume of documents, Gregors submitted a $2 million special-purpose local-option sales tax proposal to build a facility just for that purpose. Before submitting that proposal, he sought and received sanction from the Georgia Archives to become an official records repository for government agencies in the region.
“I think they were so supportive in Atlanta because of the volume of the workload they have,” Gregors said. “The National Archives are about 200 years behind in digitizing records, and the Georgia Archives are about 100 years behind. We can take some of that workload off them.”
Bids on the Thronateeska facility went out Aug. 15 and will be opened in mid-September. Once a bid has been approved by the Albany City Commission, construction will begin.
“Management of records is a requirement; governments either have to do it themselves or pay another entity to do it,” Gregors said. “Money (to pay for archiving and storage) was going to leave the city, but now we’re available to provide that service. It’s a benefit on many levels.”
Tolbert, meanwhile, is using her position as a GMCFOA board member to the city’s benefit. When she learned (“very early in the process”) that the IIMC Region 3 conference would be held in Georgia and that officials were looking for host cities, she helped officials put together a bid “that should knock their socks off.” The winner of that bid is expected to be announced in early September.
Tolbert also ordered enough copies of the book “Government in the Sunshine” to give to city officials after taking a class on the state’s new Sunshine Laws. And she helped plan a meeting at which city officials to discuss those laws.
“By staying on top of the latest laws through her (IIMC) classes, Sonja takes every opportunity to keep us abreast of information that we need to know,” Hubbard said. “That’s very important to the city.”
Tolbert, who was nominated by Flohre and received the Society of Georgia Archivists’ President’s Award for her contribution to the Thronateeska project, downplays the significance of her own recognition. Instead, she notes that her efforts allow her to do her job well.
“This is not even about personal achievement,” she said. “It’s about working closely with the mayor and the city manager and the city attorney and all of us throwing out opinions about the best way to achieve certain priorities. The fact that these people respect what I say — and they know I can back it up with facts — well, that’s reward enough for me.”