Published: 3:52 pm, Tue. Jan. 31st, 2017Updated: 3:48 pm
When Lisa Johnston came to Artesia in 1990, becoming one of the community’s most trusted caretakers of its history and knowledge was likely not high on her to-do list.
She was the wife of Park Junior High’s new band director, Brion Johnston, fresh from his previous position in Portales. She served as his accompanist for young musicians’ solo and ensemble competitions and was just settling into her position as an administrative assistant for the City of Artesia.
But then-city clerk Shirley Clark, a former band parent of the Johnstons’ from their time in Los Lunas, knew what Lisa was capable of. She began immediately to provide Johnston with the tools and classes necessary to become what she is today as she retires from the city after 26 years – a recognized expert in records management, the source of an answer to seemingly any question… and a great supporter and friend of the City of Champions.
By 1994, the city’s deputy clerk had resigned, leaving Clark in need of assistance with the upcoming election.
“We had a staff meeting, and she asked if there was anyone who’d like to volunteer,” says Johnston. “Several people said, ‘Oh, Lisa will do it.’”
With that, Johnston was given the official title of assistant city clerk to add to system administrator, into which her job evolved over the years as she became responsible for the city’s document management software.
Johnston quickly discovered a love of records management, which she likens to “paper archaeology.”
“Nobody ever starts out to be a municipal clerk,” she laughs. “If you ask a room full of people, ‘What did you want to be when you grew up,’ I’ve only once ever heard someone say they wanted to be a municipal clerk, and it was because their mother was one.
“Municipal clerk is just one of those jobs people happen into, and they either really, really love it, or they soon leave it and go find something else. But we’re kind of the gatekeepers to the city in a lot of cases. In a very small community, a municipal clerk is everything. Sometimes they’re the only or one of a very small number of employees, so you can literally be chief cook and bottle washer.”
Johnston’s background was in plant sciences, in which she received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Arizona. And while finding a use for her passion might have seemed a long shot as a city clerk, in 1994, she did.
“We received a small grant to do some demonstration plantings around City Hall of low-water-use plants,” Johnston says. “We wanted to showcase plants that people could get that looked nice, because in the early ‘90s, what a lot of people thought when they heard ‘native plant’ or ‘native landscaping’ was ‘yuccas and gravel.’ As we jokingly said, ‘That’s zero-scaping.’”
The grant allowed Johnston and a friend and professional landscape designer to install irrigation and plants at the corner of Fifth Street and Texas Avenue, on the north side of City Hall, and in the corner section by the drive-through lane.
“Some things worked really well – the very tall plants by the windows on the north side of the building are Arizona Rosewood, and we planted them as little five-gallon plants,” Johnston says. “If you look at them today, they’re 30 feet tall and pretty amazing.”
The basic duties of an assistant city clerk often don’t extend far beyond attending city council meetings alongside the city clerk and preparing drafts of the minutes for the clerk’s and council’s approval.
But Johnston is, as in so many areas of her life, the exception to the norm.
Among her many honors are two that, before her, had never been awarded to an assistant or deputy city clerk: the position of president of the New Mexico Clerks and Finance Officers Association – in which Johnston served from 2005-06 – and the Clerk of the Year award, which she received in 2012.
“The mayor (Phil Burch) and Aubrey (Hobson, city clerk) nominated me for that award, not just because of what I do here but because of my activities with the clerks’ association, and I was amazingly honored to have been awarded that,” Johnston says.
In 2000, she earned her Certified Municipal Clerk (CMC) standing, an internationally-recognized designation requiring, among other things, 100 hours of class work and experience in various combinations, and Johnston attained her Master Municipal Clerk (MMC) certification in 2006.
“We’re very proud in New Mexico because we have worked really hard with our clerks and encouraged certification,” Johnston says. “MMC is a real commitment to the program. It’s additional education hours and experience, along with teaching – what we call ‘give back time.’ You’ve got the basics, now you need to reach out and help those people who are coming up. I always learn by teaching, so that was a good way to do it.”
At the time of her MMC certification, Johnston was one of just five or six Master Municipal Clerks in the state. Now, that number stands at 10.
Johnston has served as a member of the New Mexico Historic Records Advisory Board for 20 years, which encourages the preservation and use of historical records.
“Our biggest accomplishment was a grant program we developed,” she says. “We hand out small grants to municipalities, counties and small museums to do something for a small piece of their collection. The grant has allowed us to help a lot of tribes and various different entities, so I’m very proud of that.”
Through that effort, she was also recommended to serve on a national task force on local government archives, helping teach the importance of properly archiving and preserving municipalities’ records.
“We always just expect that someone is taking care of our records,” Johnston says. “But when cities have budget cuts, money for microfilm or for fireproof safes, those type of things, diminishes, and we’ve heard plenty of horror stories over the years of fires in warehouses and other disasters in which records were destroyed.”
The group filed for a FEMA grant in order to develop a training program to teach proper records handling, in which Johnston served as an instructor.
Johnston quickly became one of the “go-to” clerks in New Mexico for answers to records management questions and has taught numerous classes around the state and beyond on the subject. She’s also been instrumental in handling local elections, something for which she has developed a passion.
“Elections are so important, no more so than at the local level,” Johnston says. “As much as we like to think our vote for president or senator is going to make an impact, the votes that really count are the ones for mayor and city council and school board – the local people – because they’re the ones that are doing stuff that affects us day to day.”
Johnston was also called upon to chair or aid in a number of special projects in Artesia over the years, including the city’s centennial celebration.
“I helped organize the city birthday party we had and also helped organize the parade for Fourth of July – and I jokingly always said, ‘Well, who better to organize a parade than a former band director’s wife,’” Johnston says. “We also did what we called Centennial Minutes that year, and I was able to write up little blurbs for each council meeting reflecting on things that happened in early Artesia.”
Johnston also aided in increasing Artesia’s awareness of and participation in the 2010 census and, due to her experience with Artesia’s centennial, was asked to research information on state municipalities and the New Mexico Municipal League for publication in the league’s 50th anniversary commemorative materials.
As for her accomplishments at City Hall, Johnston is perhaps proudest of instituting Laserfiche, the city’s document management system, in 2007. The software allows records to be searched by keyword in a matter of minutes.
“All 100-plus years’ worth of minutes are in there, so it’s a neat way to do research that has become really useful,” Johnston says. “We started with it at City Hall, and we’ve gradually added the courts, the police department, the cemetery, the library.
“It’s useful to the point now that if something happens and that server isn’t working properly, everyone is like, ‘Ah! What happened to Laserfiche!’ I’m proud to have been able to start something that made a lot of sense for the departments, and it’s something that can be continued and expanded.”
Johnston’s day-to-day activities at City Hall have varied widely over the years, but it’s that element of surprise she says she’ll miss most.
“No two days are exactly the same in my office,” she says. “I get up in the morning and I think, ‘Okay, today I’m going to work on these five things,’ and if I’m lucky, I get one or two of them done. But then we’ll get a phone call and someone needs some information, or a department needs some research done.
“You do pick up and learn an amazing amount about what has gone before through records management, and sometimes that’s very useful as you’re facing something now. So I will miss the challenges, miss seeing the people on a daily basis, because I’ve made a lot of very good friends here.”
Johnston also, graciously, says she’ll miss her interactions with reporters from the Daily Press, who have, over the years, scrambled into her office or placed desperate phone calls seeking clarification of an item from the previous evening’s council meeting or information on a city department.
Johnston says she treasures the support she’s received from her colleagues and the resilience she sees every day from the city and the citizens it serves. And the city employees and citizens she’s served, through both information and advice, over the past 26 years certainly share the sentiment.
“I’ve always had the support of the city clerk and the mayor in all my endeavors,” Johnston says. “They’ve made it possible for me to do these things and reach out, which allows Artesia to have a voice in what’s going on out there in the big picture. One of the things I think I like best about the City of Artesia is its can-do spirit. There are very few things the city sits down and says, ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ Most of the time, it’s, ‘We could figure out how to do that,’ and watching collaborations grow with other entities in the community to get things done for the betterment of Artesia has been wonderful.
“It’s been an amazing 26 years, and I feel very lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to do all these things. It’s been an interesting career. There were good times with the council, there were some scary times, there were some, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get through this’ times. But this city is and will always stand. People come and go, and I’m just another one who’s come through and is going now. But it’s been a lot of fun.”