I’m happy that we actually have a choice in tomorrow’s Dane County Register of Deeds race. This is unusual. I contacted both candidates recently and asked them for their views on Open Records and the Register of Deeds office.
I’ve been concerned over the years that some government agencies don’t follow (ignore?) the Open Records laws. Rather, they take the opportunity to charge taxpayers twice, once via taxes and a second time via various access fees for public information. There are no shortage of arguments over these questions.
Peter Ellestad responded via email (I’ve not heard from his opponent, Kristi Chlebowski). Peter’s response follows:
Sorry to take so long in responding — I’ve been driving around the county a great deal. Regarding my philosophy about records: I think priority should be given to maintaining and enhancing free access to all real estate records. At present, anyone who comes in to the register of deeds office may search all of these records at no charge, and will receive help from staff to find what they are looking for. I’ve been startled when I’ve been helping someone find something to be asked “Is there a charge for that?” and I think they’ve been surprised to hear “No, anyone can search these records for free.” I think that free access is appropriate and is the responsibility of our office to provide.
However, the situation regarding online searching, at least now, is somewhat trickier. Our office currently provides two options for on line searchers: Tapestry and Laredo, which are both provided and maintained by a vendor to whom we pay a fee. (Since I’m not the register, my knowledge of the arrangement is not precise and I’m not aware of the exact contractual arrangement.) In the case of Tapestry, a user pays $3.99 by credit card to do a name search, and for documents recorded after 1993 can view and print an image for 50 cents a page. In the case of Laredo, a user pays a minimum of 50 dollars a month to have access to the same search program used on the public search computers in our office. Beyond a certain time threshold there is an additional charge per minute, and the user is able to print unlimited copies included at no additional payment. I think the overall effect of this is that the county does receive some money over and above its cost for providing this system. (However, these programs are providing copies as well as viewing access, and state statutes mandate charging fees for copies, so it’s hard to calculate what portion of the fees are applied to access and what are applied to copy production.) In any case, there certainly is a cost to providing and maintaining this online access, and I think that as long as this extra cost exists, it’s reasonable and appropriate to charge enough to cover that cost and any depreciation on the equipment used to provide the service. But, I don’t think records should be viewed as a product or commodity, and I don’t think access to them should become a cash cow for government.
Basically, I think one the primary functions of our office is to provide constructive notice, so that people have the information they need to make informed decisions about real estate. Our purpose is to archive and safeguard the records, not to hoard them. (In fact, most original documents do not stay in the office; after they are indexed and scanned they are sent back to whomever the drafter lists as the recipient.)
I suspect over time there will be much more electronic or online access to documents and some of these questions of cost will be moot. Regardless of that, I believe that in person access to records in our office should always be completely open and free, and that’s the view I will maintain as register.
From my perspective, land records should be freely available via the internet, just like local assessment data.