Ryan McDonald

Long-time City Clerk Elaine Doerfling to retire as Hermosa mulls Measure CC

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Elaine Doerfling in front of her office at Hermosa City Hall. Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom (@jlcederblomphoto)

by Ryan McDonald

In 1966, Elaine Doerfling, proud owner of a recently purchased home in Hermosa Beach, took a phone call from her aunt. The aunt, who like most of Doerfling’s large extended family was still living in the Midwest, did not share her niece’s enthusiasm about the new digs.

“She said, ‘What are you doing in Hermosa Beach? It’s the drug capital of the world!’” Doerfling recalled with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not seeing it, but okay.’ I knew it was going on, but I was pretty far removed from that.”

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Doerfling, with a young child and another on the way, was spending more time on the playground at Valley Park than she was soaking in the counterculture unfolding closer to the beach. She chose the home on Ava Avenue after looking around the South Bay and finding Hermosa “a little cheaper” than other towns. With a downpayment of $5,000, the corpus of a trust established for her by her father who had been killed serving in World War II, she purchased the home for $21,000.

“How times have changed,” she mused. 

Doerfling has been a face around town in Hermosa ever since, one especially familiar to anyone who has ever gone to its City Council meetings, filed a public records request, or attended an evening ballot count for a local election. Doerfling has served as Hermosa’s City Clerk for three decades, and though she has no plans to ever move from Hermosa, she will retire by Dec. 4. The exact date is uncertain. It depends on when another clerk, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder, certifies the results of Hermosa’s Nov. 5 election. In a rather circular state of affairs, the last election Doerfling presides over will be one in which Hermosa voters, along with selecting two City Council members and considering an increase in the city’s hotel bed tax, decide whether to make the city clerk an appointed position instead of an elected office.

The overlap is not entirely a coincidence. Doerfling announced her intent to step down at a council meeting in January. The same night, the council voted to put a measure before voters in the November election that, if passed, would give the council the power to appoint a clerk, or to delegate the task to the city manager. Measure CC, as it is known, has the unanimous support of the council, who in the ballot argument in favor of the measure wrote that “increasing complexities in the field of city clerkship” make the change a needed one. Doerfling, with her decades of service in government, has been able to keep up. But the council worried that another candidate, who per state law need to meet no qualifications other than being a Hermosa resident at least 18 years of age and registered to vote in the city, might not.

According to a list compiled by the League of California Cities in March of this year, there are 382 cities in California with appointed city clerks, and 101 chosen by-election. The Golden State’s megalopolises uniformly appoint the position, but smaller cities are all over the map: Point Arena, population 454, has an appointed clerk, while Plymouth, with 976 residents, elects the position. Nor does the type of government seem to predict it: Bakersfield, a charter city, has an appointed clerk; Torrance, also a charter city, elects their clerk.

Patrice Olds, current president of the California City Clerks Association, said cities are increasingly moving to the appointed model. Olds was the first appointed city clerk in San Mateo, where she works now. San Mateo is one of 20 cities in the eponymous county, and two others in recent years have changed from elected to appointed positions, Olds said. Only two of the 20 cities still elect their clerks.

Doerfling’s long tenure may have spared Hermosa from deciding to make the switch earlier. George Schmeltzer, first elected to Hermosa’s council in 1976, said that Doerfling has provided the stability that local governments sometimes lack.

“She’s provided a great deal of consistency. Other cities turn over more rapidly in the clerk position. That can’t be a good thing,” Schmeltzer said.

Doerfling’s long tenure coincided with a dramatic rise in home prices in Hermosa; $5,000, even adjusted for inflation, won’t go far toward a down-payment these days. As a result, it is increasingly rare for Hermosa’s employees to live in the city they serve. By combining a long tenure at work with her sense of place as a longtime city resident, Doerfling provides something that is likely impossible to replace.

Consider her role in the city’s battle over oil. In a 1984 special election, voters had passed measures P and Q,  which opened, respectively, the city yard and the area where South Park now sits to oil drilling. But in 1995, Doerfling oversaw the election in which voters supported Measure E, which repealed those measures and reinstituted the city’s ban. The vote set the stage for a lawsuit by MacPherson Oil, which sought hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, enough to plunge the city into bankruptcy. A 2012 deal staved off the threat of insolvency, but set up another vote on whether to repeal the city’s ban on oil drilling.

Tom Bakaly, the current CEO of the Beach Cities Health District, was Hermosa’s City Manager during the debate over what became known as Measure O. Hermosa voters decisively rejected lifting the ban in March 2015, but the runup to the election was fraught with emotion and division. Bakaly recalled Doerfling as “a steadying force during a tumultuous time in Hermosa’s history.”

“I particularly appreciate her humor, calm decorum and connection to the past,” Bakaly said.

‘I have to be here’

Doerfling and volunteers collect ballots during a past Hermosa election. Photo by Kevin Cody

Doerfling moved from the Midwest to California when she was 16. Her mother, looking for work, was drawn to the state’s booming aerospace industry. The family got off the plane at LAX knowing no one. After spending a few days in a hotel, they were getting breakfast in a coffee shop when her mother asked a police officer where they could find a nice place to live. The cop suggested El Segundo. Doerfling went on to graduate from El Segundo High School.

She absorbed the beach lifestyle, and met her first husband, a surfer, on the sand at 26th Street in Manhattan Beach. They had two children together and moved into the home on Ava, but separated in February of 1973. With bills to pay, Doerfling looked for a job, and a few months later, was hired to work as a receptionist for Hermosa, when the city got its first-ever switchboard. She worked out of an office in what is now the finance department and cashier’s office.  

The switchboard served as Doerfling’s introduction to Hermosa politics. She recalled fielding a call from Quentin “Boots” Thelen, longtime owner of the Mermaid, asking to speak with a city official. When Doerfling informed Thelen the official was not in, the tavern owner, a former mayor, tried to upbraid her, saying, “Do you know who this is?”

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh yeah, she’s here for you,’” Doerfling recalled sarcastically.

Doerfling moved from the switchboard to a spot in Hermosa’s nascent Planning Department. But she fell while skiing, and badly broke her leg. Her doctor put her in a hip cast and Hermosa, concerned about her ability to continue working, did not let her return to work.

Suddenly a single mother with a debilitating injury and no job, Doerfling was terrified at the prospect of being unable to support her family and keep her house. She was also stung by the rejection from the city she called home, but decided to look past it and move on.

“Okay, so what do I want to do about this? Do I want to fight it?” Doerfling said, describing her thinking at the time. “If I won, then what?”

She managed to find work with the city of La Habra, defying her doctor’s orders to keep her leg elevated each day. She caught a ride to work with a neighbor, who worked in La Habra’s parks department, but the combination of recovering from her injury, a long commute, working full time and caring for her children proved exhausting. By the time she was able to drive herself again, she found an opening in the city of Rancho Palos Verdes.

Doerfling was sold on the position on her way to the interview. She vividly remembers motoring along Hawthorne Boulevard where it winds to a close near RPV’s City Hall, and seeing the Pacific Ocean open up in front of her.

“All of a sudden, you come around that corner, and it’s just, ‘Oh my God, I have to be here,’” Doerfling recalled. “I could see Catalina from my desk.”

It was an exciting time to be working in RPV, which had incorporated just a few years before. The city had only 15 employees. Doerfling again found herself in a planning department, and relished the blank-sheet-of-paper feeling that came with figuring out what the city’s future would look like. On her lunch break, she took walks through the hills, still empty and teeming with snakes. She somehow managed to afford fees at a nearby stable. Doerfling’s daughter once surprised her by riding to RPV’s City Hall on horseback.

Doerfling also stayed involved in Hermosa politics, serving on the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustments, a now-defunct body whose roll has been folded into the Planning Commission. She started dating Hank Doerfling, who had been elected the City Council in 1972. They married in 1979. (Though not required to, Doerfling resigned from the board to avoid the appearance of impropriety.)

Doerfling began working as the Deputy City Clerk in Manhattan Beach in the early ‘80s, where she filled a role that resembles what she imagines will occur in Hermosa if Measure CC fail. An elected clerk would fill a mostly ceremonial role and sign official documents, while a full-time deputy did most of the day-to-day work. In Manhattan, Doerfling met Russ Lesser, then a member of that city’s council, who lured her away to work at Windes & McClaughry, the accounting firm where he served as managing partner.

It was a brief stint for Doerfling, who realized she preferred the atmosphere of public sector work. She left and, with finances no longer as dire as they once were, went back to school at El Camino. A long-time lover of reading and writing, she pursued a journalism degree and wrote for the school paper.

Doerfling had not quite finished her degree when, in 1989, Hermosa City Clerk Kathleen Midstokke was elected to the City Council. (Doerfling would go on to complete her degree, taking classes in the day and working nights.) The council chose to appoint a clerk to fulfill the rest of Midstokke’s term, and Doerfling was chosen from among five applications.

It was the last competition she would ever face; in each of the seven ballots on which she stood for election in Hermosa, Doerfling’s name appeared alone.

Something in the water

City clerks have a grab bag of responsibilities, most of which are defined by the state legislature. Clerks keep records of city meetings, ensure compliance with the Brown Act and the Political Reform Act, handle public records requests, and oversee local elections. 

But although the core of a clerk’s responsibilities was set out in a law that is now 70 years old, these tasks have changed significantly. At the time Doerfling came on as Hermosa’s clerk, Excel, and Works were Microsoft’s brand new computer programs. Email existed, but was 10 years from overtaking letters as the dominant form of written communication. No city official had an email account, and car phones were far more common than cell phones.

The increasing power and prevalence of computers initially seemed like it might make a city clerk’s job easier. Meetings could be videotaped and, eventually, put on the internet for the curious and the masochistic to watch at any time.

But computers’ power also expanded the amount of communication taking place. In 2019, an office worker on an average day will be on the sending or receiving end of 126 emails. Text messages and social media add to the muck. For city officials, many of these are public records and, therefore, subject to public records requests, the fulfillment of which falls to Doerfling’s office. In a training session for council members and commissioners over the summer, City Attorney Mike Jenkins said “this public record situation is very much out of hand.”

“I don’t know what it is, something in the drinking water. We are spending enormous amounts of time responding to huge numbers of Public Records Act requests. It’s astonishing. I don’t know what the percentage increase is in just the last two or three years, but I don’t remember the volume being the same as it is in the past few years,” Jenkins said.

Other clerk responsibilities have also grown more complicated. Olds, of the state clerks association, pointed to campaign finance, ethics training, and conflict-of-interest filings as areas where city clerks are being asked to do more.

“It’s not just the art of taking minutes (and it is an art),” she said in an email. “It’s being a crucial hub in demystifying local government and making the connections between residents and the decision-makers.”

Terri Dinubilo worked with Doerfling for almost two decades before retiring in 2017. She came on to help organize the “city vault,” which was stuffed with accumulated official paperwork. The two grew close over the years, to the point where they could work almost symbiotically. Dinubilo said she saw the office’s responsibilities expand, and thinks that Measure CC is a good idea.

“The job has changed. It’s a very busy office,” Dinubilo said. “We take care of a lot of things, and the clerk needs to be there every day. It is a demanding job.”

It is not just email addresses and home prices that have changed in Hermosa; in Doerfling’s eyes, attitudes about government have changed too. Looking back over her tenure, she thinks it unlikely that a proposal to make the position appointed would have passed in a previous Hermosa.

“I don’t think that would’ve flown 20 years ago. People felt you needed someone in there looking over [city staff],” she said. “I think today, people are looking at it differently.”

She recalled that, when she first came on in the city clerk’s office, Roger Creighton, the imposing gadfly-turned-mayor, had spoken to a clerk’s assistant the city had hired about trying to ferret out corruption. (Creighton, Doerfling’s former neighbor, gave up after a few weeks, she said with a smile.) The skeptical attitude that crescendoed in Proposition 13 has clashed in recent decades with an increasingly complex set of mandates for cities. And the transformation of small-town government, from an activity handled by civic spirited volunteers to a profession run by experts, has not always gone smoothly. In elections up and down the state, voters have periodically rejected making the clerk an appointed position. San Mateo, Olds said, twice rejected the change before embracing it. In 2010, San Bernardino voters soundly rejected Measure C, which would have made the clerk an appointed position. The “Yes” side had a long list of endorsements, but the “No” side appealed to the need to “check” city staff and the council, and to ensure that a local resident did the job.

No one appears eager to take her place for an elected official’s salary; zero candidates filed to run for the city clerk position. Doerfling, as a current employee of the city, cannot endorse or oppose a ballot measure in her official capacity. But, as a Hermosa resident, she said she has come around to the idea of the city having an appointed clerk. 

“I had my own concerns, but that is the way things are changing. It’s a working position, more like a staff position. I sit here and I work,” she said.

When she finishes, she plans to travel, catch up with family and friends, play the clarinet, and spend more time reading. But the prospect of retirement was not an easy one for Doerfling. The city is as much as home for her as a job. 

“I’ve been thinking about it for nearly two years. At first, it was hard: What am I going to do on Tuesday nights?” she laughed. “But I can still be involved, and I’m sure I will be. I’ll go back to writing letters.”

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