County recorder
March 5, 2014 6:56 PM   Subscribe

Can you please explain to me what a county recorder does? What are some things normal staff people do in a county recorder office? What would a normal day be like for Joe County Recorder?

Other questions: What are recent news stories about county recorders that you remember reading? Most heavily weighing on my mind: why in some counties it is a partisan race?
posted by rabu to Law & Government (6 answers total)
I've worked with county recorders in many different states, first as part of a lien perfection department with a bank, and now helping county recorders digitize their offices. I'm not 100% certain of their duties in all cases in every state -- some places they're called a public trustee, some places a register of deeds -- but this is what my experience is:

The County Recorder is primarily in charge of recording real estate transactions. Some also keep track of births, deaths, military discharges, legal filings, and other such paperwork. Ones out here in North Dakota also have a "Brand Book", for ranchers to file their unique cattle brands.

The County Recorder authorizes approval of the filings; there's usually a deputy, who can also sign on behalf of the recorder, so the county recorder him/herself isn't always stuck signing and sealing things.

There are two main things the recorder does in my experience:

1. They are in charge of making sure all records filed with their office are true and accurate, and are properly recorded in a way they can be found again or referenced by other documents.

2. They help people who come to the office to research documents find the documents they're searching for.

In a sense, it's very "librarian" in nature. They work in a room full of books and indexes and notecards and microfilm and digital archives, and need to make sure everything is in order so that it can be found again in the future. Keep in mind, in most states, that's a century or two of data. Abstractors need to be able to research back to the first person to stake a claim, every document recorded on the property since before the property was officially "property". Torrens property even moreso: keeping things in order is paramount to their duties.

So, out in Western North Dakota, there's an oil boom. There were two kinds of people in the recorder's office: Joe Rancher, sixty years old and hard of hearing, trying to figure out who owns his mineral rights, and Bill Conoco-Philips, hired by a mineral rights company to figure out who to buy mineral rights from. Not every place has oil, but that's pretty much the line: there's the professional abstractors, doing a job they're certified to do, and the general public, trying to figure out whether the phone company really has a right to drive on their lawn. The recorder's job is to make sure they can both find what they're looking for.

And, frankly, rabu -- go talk to your local County Recorder. Seriously. This is one office that, at least the dozens I've worked with, is very open to the public. Go down and ask to do research; they'll probably open a door and say, 'come on back'. Go to the Grantor/Grantee books and look up any names of early settlers you can think of. See if they've got the original documents, or just a record of filing. Not everything might be public -- pretty sure birth certificates, marriage licenses, and military discharges aren't public info these days -- but most of it will be.

As for partisan: in my experience, and this is getting into editorializing, there's rarely anyone who runs for the office other than the incumbent, and if the incumbent is retiring, it's the Deputy running. I can see how County Recorder could be a toe-hold into the exciting world of public service, but it's not exactly a place to get promoted from. Very little legislation originates from the County Recorder's office. They're mostly subject to rules that were put in place a hundred years ago, because if you change the rules of the recorder's office you'll mess up the system. Recorders hate when the system gets messed up.

More thoughts on the day-to-day of a county recorder:

Some recorders just record everything that comes in, unless there's a blatant mistake. Others are very particular. It depends on the state and the history of the county. File a document with a township that isn't even in that county? Most will reject it, some will simply record it. You never know. There's usually one or more 'secretaries' (another term that varies) who actually review the documents for accuracy. A good office will have well-trained workers who can catch that a mortgage is getting filed on the wrong two lots; some won't. The recorder may not personally do that research, depending on the county size.

Oh -- and this is fun notes, too -- I've encountered County Recorders who are able to perform marriages, will notarize documents for free, or on a slow day might do your research for you. The offices I've been in, large and small, have been rather laid back. Like I said, they're really a public service, like a library, and generally take service to the public seriously.

So, in a normal day:

--Get there first to unlock everything, turn on the lights, etc.
--Any documents that need a signature, stamp, seal, etc., get briefly reviewed and taken care of.
--The recorder may get mail from people looking for information; they might assign somebody to look things up, make copies and mail them out.
--People will show up at the front desk asking questions that the regular office staff can't answer, so the recorder gets brought in.
--County government meetings he/she might need to be present at; I'm not sure what they are about, but from trying to get a hold of county recorders on a regular basis, they're quite frequent.
--The city planner wants to know how many lots in a new subdivision have been sold lately -- they go to the recorder, who gets that information.
-- The local certified abstract company probably keeps their own set of records, which they get updated from the County Recorder monthly. Everything's digital now, so the Recorder clicks a few buttons to export things to DVD, then marks it an official certified copy of the county records.
-- A geneologist shows up looking for marriage records from Territory days; some of that's at the county, some isn't, but they go look anyway.
-- Maybe some more certifications recorded at the end of the day, turn off the lights, lock things up.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:34 PM on March 5, 2014 [13 favorites]

My brother is the county recorder's office supervisor for my county. AzrealBrown's answer is basically accurate.

The brother started the job on a contract entry-level position, about five years ago, when my county (which was apparently still in the stone age) still kept all public records ON PAPER, and they hired a ton of college-age kids to either scan documents, check scanned versions of documents, or whatever until everything was computerized.

These days he's gone through a couple promotions and is now in charge of basically collecting documents submitted by the public (or rather, supervising the people who do), getting them scanned in and recorded, and assisting people who need to look stuff up. In my county you can file anything as public record if you pay a fee. One of the more amusing records was a simple sheet of paper with "Hunter is a Bastard" scrawled across in marker. Someone else recorded a 13-page manifesto of the Religion of the Tree. There have been poems. Mostly, it's boring stuff, like birth and death certs and land records and such.

He has a lot of people coming in asking how to fill out legal forms, which he isn't exactly allowed to tell them, not being a lawyer, but he says he gives them hints by asking "suggestive questions" in some of the more obvious cases. "So what am I supposed to put in this blank?" "You mean the blank where it says DATE FILED?" "uh... yeah?" "are you filing today?" "oh."

And then the rest is a lot of computer database filing and organization and maintenance and
communicating with other organizations and branches of government.
posted by celtalitha at 9:18 PM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, he also is pretty heavily involved in setting up election logistics and running poll sites/hiring people to temp at poll sites.
posted by celtalitha at 9:22 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Each state is different in the details and names, but essentially the same tasks need to be done: recording and keeping track of real estate conveyances, probate filings, court filings, and births, deaths, and marriages. For real estate, in particular, keeping the old filings organized and available is crucial. And yes, by all means, go and ask. These are public offices and their operations are not secret.
posted by megatherium at 2:59 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite] county (which was apparently still in the stone age) still kept all public records ON PAPER

This is actually a chunk of lawmaking that County Recorders were involved in: one problem with digital is certifying that it is a true and official copy. Some states' laws explicitly require a physical copy -- so everything's still on paper. The push for digitization is only a few years old; in some states, it took a long time for microfilm to be recognized as official, and counties were still microfilming their official records up until very recently. County Recorders, along with other paper-heavy departments like tax commissioners, human services, etc., are the ones supporting changing laws to allow digital records.

I suppose it could get partisan because paper books on a shelf are cheap -- but digitizing, even just digitizing new stuff going forward, is expensive. "Spend Money" vs "Trim Budgets" is definitely a partisan dividing line these days. In more than one county we've worked with, the county commissioners required the Recorder to report in how the digitizing was going and how the money was spent, and if they needed more money for the project it was a big uphill battle to request it.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:44 AM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

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