Berkeley’s top dispenser of public information released some news this week that seemingly no one wanted to hear: She’s calling it a career.
Sherry Kelly, 57, Berkeley’s city clerk since 1993, will retire effective Dec. 3, after she sees the city throug h one last election.
Kelly, who has garnered great praise from both residents and city officials for her devotion to transparent government and willingness to burn the midnight oil, said she needed to spend more time with her husband, who retired three y ears ago.
City Manager Phil Kamlarz said a search for her replacement will begin soon and that Kelly’s top deputy Sara Cox will be a candidate for a promotion.
Weldon Rucker, Kamlarz’ predecessor, called Kelly, “One of the hardest working people I’ve ev er met. It’s going to be a huge loss for the city,” he said.
“Sherry’s done a terrific job,” said City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque. “On the tech front to have all the public documentation on the web, it’s a quantum leap from where we were before.”
T hou gh Kelly’s pending retirement was common knowledge around city hall, neighborhood leaders were surprised and saddened.
“I have so much respect for her,” said Marie Bowman, president of Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations. “She instilled so muc h trust in that office.”
As city clerk, Kelly has been responsible for managing city documents, researching inquiries, recording City Council and commission happenings and managing elections—a particularly time consuming chore in a city with numero us el ected offices and a penchant for citizen-intiated ballot measures.
Her work to get city government information online, including council agenda packets and live streaming video of City Council meetings, was recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, which last year named Kelly a recipient of the James Madison Freedom of Information Award.
In October the city is scheduled to release an online City Council archive chronicling every council action since the start of the 20th century. A si milar interactive database for other city departments is due out within a year.
“I think people can’t make good decisions without being well informed and they can’t be well informed unless they have the facts,” Kelly said.
Getting information to the pub lic, h owever, has never been a nine-to-five job for Kelly, who is known to arrive at city offices by 7 a.m. and stay past 9 p.m.
“She’s always the first car in the lot, I’m probably the second,” Kamlarz said.
It’s been that way since Kelly, a San Diego-native, arrived from Martinez where she served as deputy city clerk and assistant to the city manager. Before that she had stints as a sales analyst for a pharmaceutical company and a load administrator for a bank.
“I liked Martinez,” Kelly said. “But I though t Berkeley might have more resources to get information to the public”.
She was in for a rude awakening. Much like the present, 1993 was an era of tight city budgets and Kelly was hard pressed to maintain services with a skeletal staff and outdat ed compu ters.
Compounding her early challenges, within a few months after she took office, the mayor resigned and she had to handle a public hearing on panhandling that drew national attention. Her first election included 68 candidates and a city-wide run-off for mayor.
“If I had known it was going to be that bad, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job,” she said.
Kelly tackled those challenges the same way she handles her current workload: She worked a prodigious amount of overtime.
“There’s always more you can do,” she said. “It just depends on how you define yourself.”
Kelly’s penchant for late nights and some automatic-locking doors have left her trapped in City Hall more than once, and nearly stranded her one Christmas Eve.
While preparing to bring a b ox full of work home with her on the night before Christmas, Kelly tried to exit City Hall via the stairwell only to find that the doors had locked from the inside.
“For the next two hours I was screaming and pounding on doors hoping somebody w ould let me in,” she said. “I knew my husband wouldn’t even look for me until Christmas morning.”
Finally convinced there was no security guard to heed her call, Kelly escaped through an unlocked door in the basement where earlier that day construction c rews were removing asbestos. “At that point I figured asbestos or not, I’m taking my chances,” she said.
Kelly will not be a stranger in city hall after her retirement. She plans to work as a consultant and has already discussed possible projects with K amlarz.
“I need to keep active and busy,” she said. “This has been my life for so many years.”àv