You’d know her from the city council meetings. She sits at the end of the round dais in the Plano City Council chambers. She speaks into a silver microphone to announce speakers at a public meeting or to announce a spot on the agenda.
She may sit in that chair for 30 minutes or three hours.
That chair at the end of the circular table is where the public may usually see Lisa Henderson. That’s her spot, her role in the public part of local government. But there is much more to Henderson’s job.
In 2015, Henderson chose not to pass along a petition from citizens against Plano Tomorrow, a master plan that called for some urban growth, not knowing she would launch a lawsuit that would stretch on today, and could dismantle plans for Plano’s entire future.
Walking through Henderson’s office on the third floor of Plano City Hall gives the impression that her job goes beyond pushing papers. She has her own room with a tall window letting in a 10 a.m. sun. her desk and nameplate announce her position, and we sit at a wooden table separate from her main desk.
Henderson has worked as Plano’s City Secretary since 2014. Over the last five years, she has been an election coordinator, a history recorder and a researcher for Plano. Before that, she worked as the city secretary for Pilot Point.
“I didn’t start out being a city secretary,” she says. “I got a job in Pilot Point as the utility billing clerk at the front desk. You know, the face you see when you come in to sign up for water service, and I fell in love with government work.”
She later ended up in Pilot Point’s city secretary position after working at a few title companies. Her love of government work is still kicking today.
“I love the process of legislation at the dais, you know, when people come in and they can speak and they can be heard and the council makes decisions. It’s just the democratic process, and I’m over elections as well. So making sure all our citizens can vote is awesome.”
She moved on to being deputy city secretary in The Colony, where she lives today, and eventually became city secretary for Plano.
“To go from there to Plano was an amazing thing she accomplished,” says David Terre, a councilman in The Colony.
The move could be seen as a big step up, he says.
Terre worked with her for about two and a half years. During that time, he would eventually come to give her the nickname of “sunshine girl” because of her upbeat attitude.
“If Lisa had a bad day,” he says, “it never showed.”
Definition to definition
There are multiple ways to describe Henderson’s job, but doing so is not always easy.
“It just encompasses so much,” says Assistant City Secretary Alice Snyder, who has worked in Plano’s city secretary office since 1998.
The job entails working with other city departments and outside entities.
When it comes to one part of her job, Attorney Andy Taylor describes the secretary’s role in a sports metaphor: In baseball, the only person who can call a ball or a strike is the umpire.
“In this matter, the umpire is your City Secretary,” Taylor said while speaking at a joint Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council meeting July 22.
That was one of multiple comments that night surrounding Henderson’s job, which, like Henderson herself, came to attention in the middle of a conflict between Plano and some of its residents.
Decision to decision
The Plano City Council passed the Plano Tomorrow plan in October 2015. The comprehensive development plan, about two years in the making, would eventually win awards at state and national levels, but some residents felt the plan had ignored their concerns.
Rumblings of discontent had emerged when the plan was drafted. After the council approved the plan, those rumblings took the form of a petition to be submitted to the city.
Henderson and others knew a petition was circulating. Even then, Henderson believed that state law prohibited accepting the petition. She had spoken with the legal department, reviewed what the laws said and had made her decision.
In November 2015, a couple of boxes of paper filled with over 4,000 signatures from unhappy citizens landed in Henderson’s office. She counted the number of pages as a receipt for the people who delivered it.
According to the city charter, Plano’s equivalent of a constitution, Henderson’s job is to present petitions to the City Council “immediately upon the filing.”
She didn’t hand it over. In fact, it has been four years and she still hasn’t handed it over, and in September, a judge acting for a district court ruled that she doesn’t have to.
Much has happened between Henderson’s decision and the judge’s. The city has been entrenched in controversy over a right to petition. A group of citizens sued the City Council and secretary. Citizens have spoken hotly for and against the plan at public hearings, yet the same plan remains in effect today.
At the center of it all rests a central point—an argument over how Lisa Henderson should do her job. It’s an argument that has been formed through spoken word in a municipal center chamber, in digital word on social platforms and through printed word in court documents.
When citizens opened the lawsuit, her office received the documents. The city secretary’s office accepts the service of process in cases involving the city, Henderson said, and those particular papers had her name on them.
“[That was] a little different,” she says.
It took almost four years to get from Henderson’s decision to the judge’s. Most of that time involved the courts deciding on jurisdiction, or if the court could hear the case.
Those proceedings were moments that poked out from the normal routine Henderson led attending meetings, preparing agendas and minutes, facilitating research for those who needed it and documenting the city’s movements.
“We are typically in a perpetual state of meeting,” she says.
Peppered in are calls from citizens requesting information such as the history of a building that is now a Masonic lodge. The ordinances, minutes and more carefully collected over time make a thread of history for any research inquiry.
“That’s why what we do is important because it’s that tracking of the history,” Henderson says. “Making sure you’ve got your motions correct and your ordinances so you know what action took place so you can track it back to the action before, and the action before that, and just follow it all the way through history.”
Her job gives her a wide span of knowledge that allows her to get a “pulse on the city,” she says.
McKinney City Secretary Empress Drane says the secretary’s main role is to be an archivist for the city. She became secretary after leaving the city’s Parks and Recreation department, and she says the role has a more prominent place in the light of public interest and political action.
The city secretary also handles elections, which can involve anything from electing city council members to bond elections. Secretaries are also in charge of issuing alcoholic beverage applications and making sure government documents are accessible to the public.
Drane says the historical connotation of the word “secretary” can bring ideas of someone who files papers, answers the phone and manages someone else’s schedule. But that’s not the city secretary’s job.
“I would say the most appropriate terminology would be a clerk and a records keeper for your city,” Drane says.
Among those roles, there are moments when the secretary’s decisions hold more weight in the public eye.
Making those calls comes down to muting the outside chatter, Henderson says. The focus must be solely on what is in front of her.
Her decisions have consequences. Some, like the one surrounding the petition, can have effects rippling to four years later. But Henderson says she never wondered if she was wrong about that call.
She knew going into it that deciding not to hand the petition in would spark controversy, but that didn’t shake her from doing what she saw as the right decision.
“You have to make the decisions based on the guidance provided by council or law or whatever is guiding you. It isn’t always easy. But you have to do your job. Even if it’s not popular.”
The space in between
Judge Henry Wade Jr. called it in September: Henderson doesn’t have to turn over the petition.
Yet the four-year ripple emanating from her 2015 decision hasn’t faded completely. The plaintiffs have filed an appeal with the courts, and the city maintains that the judge followed the law.
Henderson continues to do the job she took an oath to do, and she plans to do so for Plano until she retires. That doesn’t mean she’s in a static place. Henderson says she pursues continuing education and completes trainings and registrations to be at her best.
“I feel like I’m a good city secretary,” she says.
Her job also brings both support and criticism from outside, but for Henderson, it’s a stepping stone to the future.
“Nobody likes to be criticized at what they do, but you take that and you learn from it,” she says. “You just move forward.”