Jun 18

Every Challenge Provides a Door to Opportunity

Posted on June 18, 2021 at 2:11 PM by Karen Lee

Cama’i

Means “hello” in the Chugach Alutiiq language. My home is in Valdez, pronounced “Val-deez,” a saltwater coastal community located on a deep fjord in northeastern Prince William Sound. Our City is situated on the ancestral homeland of the Chugach Sugpiaq/Alutiiq peoples. I respectfully acknowledge the indigenous first people and Alaskan Native nations upon whose traditional lands Valdez is located, traditionally known as Suicit.

I recently celebrated 32 years as the Valdez City Clerk. My City was incorporated as a home rule municipality in 1901. We have a population of approximately 3,800 and an annual budget of $53 million dollars. While Valdez is known for its world-class outdoor adventure and saltwater fishing, the majority of our tax base is derived from taxation of oil and gas property. Our community is the terminus for the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline which stretches 800 miles from the North Slope to the Alyeska Valdez Marine Terminal. Workers at the terminal load oil on tanker ships, which travel south to open ocean through the pristine waters of Prince William Sound.

The rich history of Valdez is often associated with the challenges we have faced, including earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches, record-breaking snowfall and a major oil spill. Each of these challenges provided a door to opportunity for our community – a chance to learn and improve our circumstances if we recognized the lessons being offered. These doors for opportunity also exist for each of us, personally and professionally.

Before moving to Valdez, I lived in Portland, Oregon and served with the Portland Police Bureau. I spent the first five years of my public service career working as police records clerk, a role predominately held by women. Many of the positions at the Bureau until the early 1980s were either closed to women or traditionally only occupied by men. In 1982, I was approached by another female co-worker about joining her to take an upcoming civil service exam to qualify for a more senior position. If we placed high enough on the test, we could be the first women assigned to the Bureau’s Criminalistics and ID unit. I was up for the
challenge and chose not to be discouraged when our personnel officer told us not to “get our hopes up” since more than 50 people (men) signed up for the test. My co-worker and I were the only two female applicants for the position. We studied hard, placed second and third on the test, and got the jobs. Through courage and perseverance, we chose to walk through the door to opportunity offered to us - not only for ourselves, but also to pave the way for expanded professional opportunities for Bureau employees of all genders.

In 1988, my marriage of eight years ended. Due to circumstances beyond my control, my ex-husband became a threat to my and my small son’s safety. My only option was to move away from Portland and give up the job that I loved with the Bureau. Not knowing where I would go, I was faced with an awful
challenge. As a higher power would have it, I met a wonderful man from Valdez, Alaska, fell hopelessly in love, and again decided to walk thru the door to opportunity in front of me and move north.

After moving to Valdez in December 1988, my plan was to take a year off from work and be a stay-at-home mom to my three-year old son. However, the universe had other plans. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker veered off course and went aground on Bligh Reef less than 30 miles from Valdez, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the water and on to the beaches of Prince William Sound. Within 72 hours, more than 9,000 people descended on Valdez to respond to the spill, including a large contingency of news media from around the world. Over the course of the next month, responders continued to arrive in mass,
challenging our small community with infrastructure capable of supporting less than 4,000 people. The City of Valdez put out a call for help. Having a background working in municipal government and a sincere desire to help in the midst of chaos, I recognized the door to opportunity and responded to assist the City Clerk’s Office.

After the oil spill, I stayed on as the deputy clerk. In March 1994, my husband was killed in a snow machine accident in the mountains near our home. This
challenge seemed insurmountable. For months I couldn’t find any light, let alone a door to lead me out. I had to keep working, but I barely made it through the day, doing my job with little purpose. Then the City Clerk announced she would be leaving her position and moving her family back to her previous home in Alabama. I, again, recognized the door to opportunity and applied for the position I currently serve in today.

I tell you a bit of my story because I know many of you have experienced the same over the course of your careers. Many of you have also shared with me the challenges you face within your organization - lack of proper recognition of the Municipal Clerk as an executive level position, problems with receiving fair and equitable compensation, and no allocation of funds in the Clerk’s office budget for certification, continuing education and professional development. These are all challenges for which membership in IIMC can provide a door to opportunity. Networking connections through IIMC are invaluable to overcoming our professional challenges and help remind us we are not alone.

Since before Biblical times, Clerks around the world served as leaders in local government.
The title of Clerk was derived from the word cleric, or clergyman, during the Middle Ages. At that time, only Clerks were scholars, so the name Clerk became synonymous with scholar. (Not typist or gatherer of coffee…) So, with this in mind, your current challenge is to use all of the educational opportunities and networking abilities IIMC offers to establish your proper role as a member of the municipal executive team. Obtaining the designation of Certified Municipal Clerk and Master Municipal Clerk provides the opportunity for professional recognition, salary increases, and positions of greater responsibility. Just think, there are also job opportunities for Municipal Clerks across the WORLD. We are an international Association with thousands of municipalities that recognize the value and worth of certification programs. I challenge you to educate your employer on the value of the Municipal Clerk profession. IIMC is here to help and serve as your door to future opportunity.

I am ready and eager to meet my latest challenge as IIMC President. What a divine act to be offered this door to opportunity near the close of my career. As I travel at home and abroad this year, I know I will meet many of you who carry the future of IIMC in your hands. I look forward to exchanging ideas and learning new things. I’m excited to share my thoughts with you on continuing education and professional development. And, most of all, I hope to instill the belief that no matter how insurmountable your personal challenge may be…it may call on you to walk with purpose, run with enthusiasm, creep with caution or crawl across the threshold with your last ounce of strength…but you will always be offered a door to opportunity.


No other office in municipal service has so many contacts. It serves the Mayor, the City Council, the City Manager, and all administrative departments, without exception. All of them call upon it, almost daily, for some service or information.---Professor William Bennett Munro

Professor William Bennett Munro is the author of one of the first textbooks written on the topic of municipal administration.