Op-ed: Salt Lake County Recorder’s office should embrace transparency
Citizens of Utah were outraged in 2011 when the Legislature passed a law limiting what records were available for public scrutiny. Public pressure was brought to bear and the law was amended. We are clearly citizens who care about transparency and open government. Yet my experience trying to obtain public information about our property records from the Salt Lake County Recorder’s office leaves me wondering.
The method for tracking property records was established by Brigham Young in "An Ordinance in Relation to County Recorders" in 1850. This established specific guidelines in conveying land and how it was to be recorded, cataloged in bound books and be free for examination. That law was modified in 1888 to require county recorders to keep separate books and indexes for all transactions. In essence, recorders were charged with showing a clear chain of title for all real property and any encumbrances.
While the foundation for the recorder’s duties has not changed much since 1888, technology has moved forward allowing us new ways to accomplish these tasks in an efficient and transparent manner. Unfortunately, the Salt Lake County Recorder’s office has not made records available to the public in a meaningful way.
The current system is not easily accessible for the public. Records are available by visiting the recorder’s office on weekdays from 8-5 or online by paying a large fee. The public can visit the office to access post-1945 records on a computer terminal. If the public needs to access property information older than 1945, they must sift through cross referenced books and microfiche.
Salt Lake County should be leading the way for availability and ease of use for the public. Yet, we are not even close to Utah and Summit counties, who offer free lookup of historical property data via the Internet.
Salt Lake County data is available for online lookup for those who subscribe to the service. A fee of $150 that must be paid up front is required. The system is so convoluted the recorder encourages users to attend a training to navigate the recorder’s website and the online lookup system. There is a $25 minimum per month fee, and per page view charge if you go over the minimum.
This recorder is more interested in protecting revenue sources. Other Utah counties offer property lookup for free via the Internet and they have neither experienced higher taxpayer burden nor a rash of identity theft. As your Recorder, I will digitize and fully index these records for everyone to access, not just those who can afford to pay exorbitant fees.
More than technology is antiquated at the Salt Lake County Recorder’s office. Many documents recorded must be notarized. You would think that the current recorder would find it worthwhile to offer this service, right? Wrong. No notary. Claims that this may be a conflict to be both a notary and recorder of the document seem superficial at best. The County Clerk’s office records marriage licenses and provides notary services. There seems to be no difference other than a commitment to serve the public. Finally, with a stunning lack of customer service, they refuse to accept credit or debit cards. Cash or check only! We can and should do better.
The recorder is responsible for an important step of what ultimately results in how much you will pay in property tax. As recorder, I will ensure that your records are accurate. I also promise that I will advocate for you the taxpayer. Whether it’s a consumer issue or a piece of legislation, I will be fighting for your best interests.
All of these issues point to a larger problem in general. A complete lack of transparency and public accessibility. Former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once said that "a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits. No one should be able to pull the curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest." He was right. Any successful entity must have transparency as the focal point of its operations, especially a taxpayer-funded agency such as he recorder’s office.
After 12 years with the same leadership, it’s time for new blood. If elected, I promise to make the recorder’s office a more accessible and open place for all. It’s time for a change you can trust.
Mary Bishop is a Salt Lake City small business owner and Democratic candidate for Salt Lake County Recorder.