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A dream come true

New clerk of the Houses of Parliament has big plans for the legislature

Published:Thursday | October 7, 2021 | 12:06 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter

Having been appointed as the new clerk to the Houses of Parliament, Valrie Curtis is not daunted by the multiplicity of challenges facing her support staff whose critical input is pivotal to keeping the wheels of the legislature turning.

This newspaper reported in October last year on the difficulties faced by the parliamentary staff as they extend themselves beyond the call of duty to carry out their daily tasks at Gordon House.

Inadequate staffing was one of the issues resonating among some members of the legislature who had complained that many were facing serious burnout on the job.

However, in a Gleaner interview, Curtis says that the Parliament is now taking steps to hire a consultant who will have the task of assessing the human resources and making recommendations to the Public Service Commission on staffing and upgrading of positions.

She says that these positions will come with increased responsibilities and improved emoluments.

“We are at the point now when we are going to advertise for the consultant and that consultant will come in and will be free to interview members of staff and no one will be muzzled,” she adds.

At present, Curtis says the post of chief editor is being established for the Hansard section of Parliament. Hansard is the verbatim records of Parliament.

Curtis says the consultant will be given a year to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the human resources of the legislature and to submit recommendations to improve its operations.

Plans are also in the pipeline for technical support to be provided for the Public Accounts Committee similar to that of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee which has the service of a consultant.

She disclosed that even before the comprehensive review is completed an effort is being made to boost the public relations and information technology departments of Parliament.

An attorney-at-law, Curtis, 64, hails from a community called Aboukir in St Ann.

When she started as assistant clerk in 1995, the only familiar face she knew in Parliament was the late Dr Neville Gallimore, the former member of parliament for St Ann South West.

Curtis had her sights set on nursing but shifted her career choice after applying late to do the course. Not wanting to wait another year before she started the nursing programme, she decided to attend teachers’ college.

Good work habits

A stickler for punctuality, Curtis says from very early in her teaching career she embraced good work habits and was never absent or late for work.

She worked as a pre-trained teacher in St Ann and as a full teacher at the Balmagie Primary School and then the Penwood Junior Secondary in Kingston, the latter being the institution where she spent most of her years in the classroom.

Completing her master’s degree in government while still teaching at Penwood, Curtis said she started looking for a new job as the salary as a teacher was insufficient to meet her needs.

After applying to the Services Commission and waiting for months, she eventually received a call for an interview to work at Parliament.

She aced the interview and was invited to join the parliamentary staff as assistant clerk on the first working day in October 1995.

In 2006, the then clerk to the Houses, Shirley Lewis, retired and Heather Cooke was elevated to that post while Curtis was promoted to deputy clerk.

Fifteen years later Curtis’ dream of becoming the CEO of Parliament came true when she was appointed clerk to the Houses of Parliament.

Asked what it meant to be the administrative head of Parliament, Curtis broke out in spontaneous hearty laughter, and shared that this was a major achievement for her.

Curtis recounted when she was asked by one of her lecturers at Norman Manley Law School what would be her goal after completing the programme. Declaring that she wanted to become clerk to the houses, Curtis said the lecturer jokingly said ‘a Mrs Cooke job you waan tek weh’.

“I thank God for the journey he has taken me through and it didn’t just start coming to Parliament... coming from Aboukir, growing up with a single mother and making it, and my only regret today is that my mother is not alive to see it.”

She hailed former deputy clerk Michael Cohen for his assistance and direction when she first started her journey in Gordon House. “He was the encyclopaedia of Parliament,” she quipped.

There is no typical day in the legislature, and even with 26 years under her belt in Parliament, Curtis said the work of lawmakers is dynamic and on any given day as clerk you may be faced with a procedural issue that you had never experienced before.

“Apart from what is on the agenda in which case everything may not be taken... even though you might get a call ‘we have to take this bill today through all its stages’ in the midst of the debate something might happen.

Ensure rules are not breached

During sittings of the houses, the clerk provides advice to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate regarding procedural matters to ensure that the Standing Orders – the rules of Parliament – is not breached.

The clerk is the custodian of the records of Parliament and as CEO is also tasked with managing the day-to-day administrative activities of Gordon House.

She explained that a Government minister might be debating a bill and an Opposition member rises to contribute to the debate and there are questions asked that the minister may not be able to provide answers to, on his or her feet, and as such the debate may be suspended.

At times technocrats will call to find out what time a minister will be making a presentation, but Curtis said they are unable to provide a specific timeline owing to the dynamic workings of the Parliament.

She explained that one statement by a minister could extend into hours because of follow-up questions by the Opposition.

Also the segment where government ministers respond to questions from the Opposition could also take hours to complete.

On the question of her leadership style, Curtis said she doesn’t believe in a dictatorial regime, arguing that as clerk to the houses she tries not to impose her will on workers.

Noting that individuals respond differently to various situations, she said that a one-size-fits-all approach was not her style of interacting with staff.

“For me, you don’t have to be the best (worker) but if you try, that’s all I want from you, if you try to be receptive to learning because nobody knows everything. So if you make a mistake you try and correct that over time.”

A new deputy clerk and assistant clerk have not yet been determined as the positions will have to be advertised and prospective candidates interviewed for the job. In the meantime, Tracey Cohen is the acting deputy clerk while Jermaine Luton is the acting assistant clerk.