Monday, January 23, 2012

No more electronic records from county clerks if state legislator, some clerks have their way

Oklahoma's county clerks would no longer have to provide electronic records in that format, under a House bill filed Thursday.

House Bill 2605 is from Rep. Gus Blackwell, a Republican representing the Oklahoma Panhandle.

The bill amends a 1989 statute applying to county clerks by adding, "Nothing in this section shall require the clerk to provide any record by electronic means."

That covers a lot of important public records. County clerks keep the records of proceedings of the county commissions, county excise boards, county boards of equalizations and county boards overseeing tax roll corrections.

County clerks also keep records of the receipts and expenditures by county governments, including the payroll for all county employees and all claims for payment for goods and services.

And they keep land records such as plats, deeds, oil and gas leases, real estate liens, and other liens against property in the county.

I'm told that county clerks are mad at oil companies and at private companies that buy large amounts of land records to sell on websites. That threatens the clerks' "copy money" they use to run their offices.

But public records aren't supposed to be money-makers for government agencies.

Twenty years ago, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said that for computer tapes, the "reasonable, direct costs" for copying should be "based upon the cost of materials [and] labor needed for providing the computer program and service to produce the requested data." (Merrill v. Oklahoma Tax Comm’n, 1992 OK 53, ¶13)

And since 2000, a $5 fee has been added to each land instrument recorded with each county clerk solely to "increase the net funding level available to the county clerk to maintain and preserve public records." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 28, § 32(D))

The "County Clerk's Records Management and Preservation Fund" is "for the purpose of preserving, maintaining, and archiving recorded instruments including, but not limited to, records management, records preservation, automation, modernization, and related lawful expenditures." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 28, § 32(C))

For those of you just joining the 21st century, let me explain that access to records in an electronic format increases significantly the public’s ability to make sense of government information. The format is as critical as the disclosure itself because the format can render the data very useful or practically useless.

Without access to computerized government records from county clerks, Oklahomans will lose a meaningful way to oversee a great deal of government activity.

House Bill 2605 is a bad idea that should be buried.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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