Seven Questions for the Register of Deeds Candidates

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This election year, Orange County voters will select a register of deeds from 3 candidates: Deborah Brooks, the current register of deeds; Mark Chilton, former mayor of Carrboro; and Sara Stephens, former deputy register of deeds. The register of deeds is the custodian of many of the county’s public records, including those relating to births, deaths, military discharges, marriage, and property transfers.

In lieu of holding a candidate forum for the register of deeds race, we sent the candidates 7 questions and asked them to respond to each question in 200 words or less. The answers we received from them appear below. They have not been edited in any way.

The questions: 

  1. Why is this an elected office?
  2. What relevant experience do you have related to this position?
  3. What do you think are the most significant challenges facing the office, and how do you intend to address those challenges?
  4. How will you make the records maintained by the Register of Deeds office more open, accessible, useful, and meaningful to the public?
  5. Do you think there is information or data that can be meaningful for policy making in the records maintained by the Register of Deeds office? If so, how do you propose we access this information and make it meaningful for policy making in Orange County?
  6. What is your assessment of the budget of the Register of Deeds office? Is there room for improvement? What is your vision for future budgeting?
  7. Will you issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Why or why not?

 

Why is this an elected office?

Deborah Brooks: The NC Constitution established the ROD as an elected office in 1868; in the 1971 Constitution the election of the ROD was left up to the General Assembly which set the 4 year terms. http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/PDF/ByChapter/Chapter_161.pdf

Mark Chilton: Register of Deeds is an elected office in North Carolina primarily for historical reasons. Up until 1868, the Register of Deeds was chosen by the Governor from among a small group of people recommended to him by the local Justices of the Peace (who collectively formed what would now be called the Board of County Commissioners).  At the same time the Constitution of 1868 made many other county offices elected instead of appointed, including Sherriff, Clerk of Court, County Commissioner and local judges.

The purpose of this reform was to make local government more directly accountable to the people of the county. Presumably the Register of Deeds was included because it was a special position of trust – even more so back in the days when all documents were unique originals which had to be carefully handled in order to be preserved. Today it is rare for a Register of Deeds race to raise any substantive policy issues, but as we are seeing right now, it can and does happen occasionally.

Sara Stephens: Originally, Registers of Deeds (ROD) were not elected officials. Dating back to the 1600’s, Registers were appointed. This was at a time in North Carolina’s history when land was often granted by Lords Proprietors and Governors. In contrast, the office of the ROD today deals with more than land records: births, deaths, marriages, and recordation of various instruments are kept and archived by the ROD. There are no Lords or Governors to appoint their friends or return favors via a political office: Registers serve the people.

The Register serves the public like any other public official, and the office is answerable to the people. The ROD office must ensure the integrity of public records, and the office must establish the highest level of stewardship and custodial for the records and instruments it handles. Most functions in the Deeds office are statutorily defined, and as such, the public must place its trust and confidence in the Register. To be so essential to our laws and system of government demands that the Register serve as a responsible public figure. The Register is the custodian of the people, and I‘m pleased to be a candidate for such an important part of our democracy.

 

What relevant experience do you have related to this position?

Deborah Brooks: I have worked in the ROD office for 38 years, four of those years as the ROD. I have worked in almost every area of the office and over the years was promoted to the highest position under the ROD before my election.

Mark Chilton: I have previously served as a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council (1991-1997), an Alderman of the Town of Carrboro (2003-2005), and the Mayor of Carrboro (2005-2013), but most of my qualifications for this office arise outside of my past elected service. I received my Juris Doctor degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law in 1997 and have been working in various aspects of real estate and real estate law ever since.

My work in real estate law has involved drafting and recording deeds, deeds of trust, condominium declarations, homeowner’s association documents, releases etc. In other words, I have experience working with a wide variety of the real estate records which this office handles.

Beyond that, I have long been interested in the old land records of Orange County. For over five years now, I have been researching the old land records of Orange County in an effort to understand the history of land use in our area. The result was my book, The Land Grant Atlas of Old Orange County, Volume 2: The Saxapahaw Old Fields. This book traces the origins of land titles in western Orange and eastern Alamance Counties - tracing the title history of about 1,000 different parcels from 1728 through 1818.

Sara Stephens: I have always looked to public service as a noble cause. I have firsthand experience in the Register of Deeds (ROD) office. I worked there for 5 and a half years. Having worked on the inside of the office, I gained the requisite knowledge and perspective to fully understand the internal workings of an office that is often misunderstood by the public. Many people solely concentrate on the land records aspect of the office, but the ROD is responsible for much more. Marriages, births, and deaths are life defining events. The Register must be able to acknowledge and appreciate them with the gravity they are due.

My belief that every interaction is an opportunity to provide top notch service and to raise expectations is something I held before becoming Deputy I and II Register of Deeds. I will to hold fast to that commitment to provide the highest level of service.

Outside of my experience in both the private and public sectors, I bring the knowledge of contemporary archiving practices and data storage management with my Master of Library Science from North Carolina Central University. My education and experience are only outpaced by my commitment to making Orange County a better place.

 

What do you think are the most significant challenges facing the office, and how do you intend to address those challenges?

Deborah Brooks: I worked for, Betty June Hayes and Joyce Pearson, but I feel I have been successful in doing that. It is challenging to meet the daily needs of the office and our citizens, the need to look down the road towards newer technology enhancements and services, with a continuing budget crunch facing the BOCC who fund my office [the revenue raised by the fees of my office go to both the State and County]. I address these challenges with a talented and experienced staff, with careful budget planning and use of resources, with dedication to our citizens needs, and with a total commitment to the accuracy and integrity of records entrusted to me.

Mark Chilton: I believe that Orange County needs to fully embrace e-recording (transmission and recording of instruments via the internet). Right now, only out-of-county attorneys are allowed to use the system. In-county attorneys are required to have their staff bring the documents to the Register of Deeds office. For the dozens of real estate transactions that happen in Chapel Hill and Carrboro law offices every day, someone must drive the documents on a 20 mile round-trip to get them recorded. This is an extremely wasteful practice that is largely unnecessary.

The process for implementing a full e-recording system has begun. As the new Register of Deeds, I will move quickly to ensure that the system is available to all closing attorneys.

Sara Stephens: The Register of Deeds must keep a finger on the pulse of our growing and ever changing communities so that we can understand the wants and needs of our taxpayers and provide excellent customer service to all. I will ensure that our staff and myself would receive up-to-date continuing education, and I would have an open door policy for the public to inform me of their concerns, what we are doing right, and what we can do better. A few benefits to our taxpayers would be:

  • Implementation of online marriage license applications. Having online marriage applications will allow the ROD staff to process requests ahead of time so when a couple comes into the office all the paperwork will be done.
  • Electronic Birth Registration. Electronic Birth registration is a statewide system in which a person can obtain their out of county birth certificate from our office. Right now you can only obtain Orange County births from the Orange County Office. About 40% of the ROD offices in the state utilize this service for their citizens. That’s just another benefit we can provide to our citizens.
  • Accept debit and credit cards. Expand forms of payment accepted in the Register of Deeds office to include credit and debit cards and provide online payments for services where it is allowed.

 

How will you make the records maintained by the Register of Deeds office more open, accessible, useful, and meaningful to the public?

Deborah Brooks: NC law determines what records are available to the citizen in their home or office. I am totally committed to making access to my records as easy and useful as possible while not compromising their integrity. I have made vast amounts of current and historical records available to the public over the internet with the capability of viewing and printing. I have made available on the internet NC’s most modern and advanced land information and title record index, the PIN system. I think the public will find it very meaningful to locate and view their property’s most recent and useful information at one location, with opportunity to explore even more current and historical data with just a click of the mouse.

Mark Chilton: For those doing title research on the internet – particularly those who are not already trained on Orange County’s website – the search interface is inscrutable. The ROAM “Web Based Document Inquiry System” is like something out of a 1990 IBM software engineering manual. All the tools are there, but the system is not at all intuitive. It bears a good deal of explaining, but the site provides little of that explanation.

Worse yet, the ROAM system is only designed to work with certain browsers. I find the system near impossible to use on a smart phone, and ROAM insists on using pop-up windows which cause numerous user headaches. In short, Orange County is using a proprietary system that locks out internet users on certain platforms.

I believe that it will take time and effort to create a better website, but that a county as sophisticated as ours needs and deserves a first class real property information system that is free, easy to understand and available to all platforms and browsers.

I also very much agree with Sarah Stephens that the absence of a Spanish language website – especially for death certificates, birth certificates and marriage licenses – is unacceptable.

Sara Stephens: Providing online access to real-estate documents. Just shy of a year and a half ago the scanning of all recorded real-estate documents was completed. I aim to take the next step of that project and post the documents while implementing user friendly online access for our customers.

  • Full implementation of eRecording. Electronic Recording is the platform that . Around 45 counties in North Carolina are already using some form of this technology. Electronic Recording will benefit everyone as it enhances customer service and lower costs for our taxpayers by:
    • Increasing staff productivity
    • Provide an economic alternative to round-trip document recordings
    • Quick turnaround
    • Eco-friendly
  • Website. On our current website, last updated November 2012, there are no clear instructions when searching for documents. I would include tips/tricks for title searches just as Durham, Johnston and Wake counties have done.
  • Hire Spanish-speaking employees. Around half of the births that take place in Orange County are Latino/Hispanic . Our office does not employee a Spanish-speaking person or have any Spanish translations on the website. The lack of equal representation does not accurately reflect our growing and changing community. The language barrier is tough on everyone: our employees and the parents that want to obtain their child’s birth certificate so that they can be enrolled in daycare just like their neighbors children. This issue also extends to death certificates, marriage licenses, legitimations, and other instruments and documents

 

Do you think there is information or data that can be meaningful for policy making in the records maintained by the Register of Deeds office? If so, how do you propose we access this information and make it meaningful for policy making in Orange County?

Deborah Brooks: The vital records (births, deaths, marriages, etc.) appear to be the most attractive data sources for policy makers. NC law and the General Assembly determine what data can be shared from these vital records, and in some cases records are totally blocked from public access. Useful data is extracted from my deed records and made available to the public by other County offices (tax admin, planning). Law and new technology, I hope, will provide opportunities to enhance access to my records by policy makers and I will fully support those developments.

Mark Chilton: All old deed books contain at least some information that is useful today. For example, a private easement signed 100 years ago will commonly still be in use today; the nature/scope of such an easement is defined in the documents which granted the easement. ROAM includes land records back to the mid-20th century, but right now, for earlier records an attorney must go (or s/he must send a paralegal) to Hillsborough to make copies. These trips are a needless expense for both lawyers and their clients. Putting the rest of OC’s old land records online will eliminate this expense (and pollution) in the future.

As my avocation, I provide interpretive materials – both in print and online – to aid surveyors, title insurance companies, lawyers, genealogists, engineers, archeologists, preservationists and historians in interpreting the old land records of Orange County. As Register of Deeds, I would produce that type of content to put online - in the public domain - so that this type of information would be as freely available as possible. This would be only a small aspect of the job, but it is a unique strength that I would bring to the office.

Sara Stephens: The usefulness of information is determined by the user of the document or instrument. The document or instrument may contain information that could be meaningful for one person, and that same information may prove of little use to someone else. In that light, the Register is truly the custodian of the people. It may be useful to think of the documents and instruments as books in a library: the reader brings background knowledge, questions, and perspective. Policy makers bring those same qualities when they utilize the documents and instruments curated by the Register of Deeds.

The access to the information in the ROD should be readily available for any patron to utilize. Some patrons will be policy makers, and some will not. The Register should not favor one over the other. The Register serves all people, not a specific group, and should provide easy access for everyone.

 

What is your assessment of the budget of the Register of Deeds office? Is there room for improvement? What is your vision for future budgeting?

Deborah Brooks: Registers are part of county government and function within its financial environment. The office’s revenues and expenses are part of the county budget, with the exception of funds restricted for the automation enhancement and preservation fund. Regardless of how much a register collects in recording fees and excise taxes the funds for personnel, equipment, and operations depend on allocations by county commissioners.  The budget is organized into three general categories. Personnel is the major expense, which includes salaries, health insurance etc. Operations include such items as technology, equipment leases, maintenance and repair etc. Capital outlays are items planned in the budget for such things as new equipment. There is always room for improvements. I plan to continue to be conservative when it comes to budgeting. If the economy changes and there is a significant increase in the real estate market, I will adjust the budget for future needs accordingly.

Mark Chilton: The budget of the Register of Deeds office is set by the Orange County Board of Commissioners in response to needs outlined by the Register’s office. It is ultimately up to the Commissioners to determine how much money they wish to make available for the functioning of the office.

I believe that significant upgrades to the information technology being used by the Register of Deeds are needed. However I also recognize that Orange County is still in a difficult financial situation and that there are numerous other priorities for county funds. There is a slice of the revenue stamp money which is set aside specifically for information technology upgrades in the Register’s office, but the money does not readily match the needs. Therefore information technology improvements will need to be prioritized and implemented with cost as a key consideration.

Sara Stephens: The Register of Deeds is a self-sustaining office. According to this year’s annual budget the ROD brought in $ 1.4 million last year. With the deduction of operating expenses our operating income was a little over half a million dollars.

NC General Statute 161-11.3 states that ten percent (10%) of the fees collected shall be set aside annually for the Automation Enhancement and Preservation Fund (e.g. computer or imaging technology, preservation and storage of public records).The majority of ROD’s income derives from document recording and retrieval. We can improve the way we budget our office by focusing on services that creates better ease of use for our customers and employees when recording and accessing documents.

As Register of Deeds I will implement applicable technology and services that are beneficial to our customers and staff while sustaining a balanced budget.

 

Will you issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Why or why not?

Deborah Brooks: My oath of office requires me to obey the laws of NC and its Constitution. I personally fully support equality, equal justice and nondiscrimination for all. I know the bitter heritage of injustice, inequality and discrimination and how we must never give up in detecting and eliminating its practices. When the Attorney General or the County Attorney tells me I can issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples I will immediately do so, gladly.

Mark Chilton: I will uphold the US Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Land. Therefore, I will sign same-sex marriage licenses. Amendment One’s legislative history makes it clear that its sole purpose was to legislate animus toward gays and lesbians - the exact reason that Colorado’s Amendment 2 was held unconstitutional in Romer v Evans (517 US 620). Justice Kennedy wrote: “‘equal protection of the laws' … must at the very least mean that a bare ... desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest." Justice Kennedy found in United States v. Windsor(570 US 12) that DOMA ‘s purpose was “to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage” which meant that DOMA deprived Americans of the equal protection of the laws.

NC’s oath of office (Art VI, sec 7) requires elected officials in NC to “support and maintain the Constitution and laws of the United States” – even when the US Constitution is contradicted by the NC Constitution or other laws. Therefore, it is the duty of every elected official in NC to reasonably interpret existing law to determine whether a statute complies with the US Constitution before enforcing that law.

Sara Stephens: I support marriage equality. While it may not be a popular stance in every circle around our state, I believe in respecting people. I understand discrimination and the effects it can have on our community. The Register of Deeds must uphold an oath, not dissimilar to that which judges must uphold. As Register of Deeds, I would not be able to pick and choose what laws to follow. The Register must have the trust of the public to follow the law in all areas.

For marriage equality issues, I would follow the lead of the progressive Registers in our state, such as Buncombe County. Providing a friendly office environment to all people does not have to interfere with my professional obligations as Orange County ROD.

  • Accepting same-sex marriage applications as a sign of solidarity for all citizens is a stand I would take. Though same-sex marriage is not legal today in NC, I vow to hold applications until the ban is lifted and so that our office can complete the application process by legally issuing licenses to all citizens.
  • Sign affidavits waiving waiting periods for same-sex couples that choose to marry legally in other states (such as Maryland).

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Total votes: 17

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Additional questions

1. What experience do you have in drafting a departmental budget, including personnel and technology services?2. What experience do you have in designing, implementing and testing a digital application (such as an interface to the Electronic Birth Registrations)? 3. What are the 3 biggest current challenges currently face the ROD?