The Gila County recorder’s office — generally a boring office no one thinks about, especially around election time.
But not this year.
The incumbent, Sadie Jo Tomerlin, faces challenger Mac Feezor in the Republican primary. If she wins the primary, she will face Democrat Mickie Nye in the general election.
Feezor is challenging Tomerlin in the Republican primary. Feezor maintains the recorder’s office could save money and improve service by basing a supervisor in the county satellite offices in Payson. Currently, all of the recorder’s employees work in Globe, with frequent trips to Payson. Feezor also maintains that the recorder’s office has lagged in using up-to-date technology to cut costs and make official documents more easily available.
Nye, a Globe businessman, is running unopposed in the Democratic Primary. He has raised questions about whether Tomerlin has focused on purging Democrats from the voter roles and making it harder for the heavily Democratic San Carlos Apache reservation to participate in early balloting.
Flood of campaigning
The vigorous challenges have produced a flood of campaigning for an office to which voters usually just return the incumbent year after year after year.
Tomerlin has been re-elected repeatedly since 2008. She is the youngest recorder in Arizona history to be elected, but the economy has changed everything.
The recorder’s office does just that – records documents the law requires the government to archive for reference. According to the Gila County Recorder’s Office website (http://www.gilacountyaz.gov/government/recorder/index.php), documents Tomerlin’s office handles include: real estate transactions, mortgages, deeds of trust, family trusts, personal property, tax liens, mining locations, subdivision plats, records of survey, military discharges, official appointments of office, business ownership documents and other documents required to be made of public record – except marriage, birth and death certificates. Those may be requested of the Arizona Department of Health Services or the Clerk of the Superior Court.
The office also functions as the Registrar of Voters. The duties include: maintaining the county register, conducting early voting, verifying petition signatures, keeping lists of political parties and candidates, and jury lists.
Complaints spur challenges
Why the challenge to an office that just files a lot of paperwork?
Real estate agents particularly express frustration with the recorder’s office because for every sale they facilitate, they must research the title, liens, deeds, and foreclosures of the property. All of this information resides at the recorder’s office.
Business owners must record their business name, location of business, and the name and address of the business owner or corporation. Any changes in ownership must go through the recorder’s office.
Real estate agents and business owners have complained that the recorder’s office lacks customer service; they cite frustration that documents are not available electronically, and they feel the office does not have enough representation in the north part of the county, even though most of the business and real estate transactions happen in the north.
In a letter to the editor, Rim Country realtor Cliff Potts wrote, “The county recorder admits that county records are not available in electronic format because her department has not performed the statutorily required steps to make them available.”
In an email, Tomerlin replied to this accusation, “The recorder’s office has moved into the 21st century as much as statutes will allow us to…We have an IT department that keeps our office up to date with the technology we need.”
In a speech given to the Tea Party in Payson, Tomerlin discussed the various technological advances the candidates and public were interested in seeing enacted at the recorder’s office.
The first technology issue that has become an issue in the campaign involves e-records, which involves scanning and submitting them to the recorder’s office digitally.
“E-recording - it was very scary,” said Tomerlin. “We weren’t sure if we wanted to do that. We wanted to make sure that these were legit good documents that were coming into us. What e-recording is, instead of walking into the recorder’s office to record your document, the title companies, or yourself, can get a contract with Simplefile or Indigo, which are the e-recording companies and you can submit it on-line to us. It saves the county a lot of money. We don’t have to mail back the documents (and) we don’t have to have the manpower to scan them all in and do that. Currently we’re doing between 30 and 40 percent e-recording and we only started on Aug. 1st (2011). Aug. 1st was our first day doing e-recording. So it’s a really good turn out so far.”
She went on to say that other counties are doing between 60 to 70 percent of their recording transactions via e-recording.
Nye agreed with Potts and offered a suggestion, “I agree that the Gila County Recorder’s Office has not moved into the 21st century. There are other counties in Arizona who have. We can partner with the larger counties and save our taxpayers time and money.”
Archiving records digitally
Another issue that concerns new technology centers on the archiving of historical documents.
Feezor noticed that the recorder’s office listed as one of its accomplishments converting 100 years of documents into digital format. After he discovered the county had paid $55,000 to US Imaging in 2009 to convert those historical documents to digital format, he decided he wanted to see the results.
So, when he went to file with for the election this year, he dropped into the recorder’s office and asked Chief Deputy Recorder Dawn Caldera if he could see the CD’s. What he told him surprised him.
“She told me, ‘We have just let out the contract,’” said Feezor.
However, in the Tea Party meeting, Tomerlin said of digitizing the historical information: “One thing that I’m really proud of is that we have been working on the historical documents from 1881 to present…. (but) it’s not something that we can just upload and put onto our system right away and have everybody look at them.
“My office manager Jane Smrdel she came to me and she goes, ‘Sadie look at this document it’s from 2005.’”
And we’re looking through it - there were 32 pages in which a gentleman decided to list his bank account numbers, his safety deposit box numbers, his Social Security number. Now, that’s just kinda strange to me – but we get documents like that all the time. So we can’t just throw these historical documents online for everybody. We have to redact this information. Because I know if I did that - if an attorney had prepared that document for me - I would hope the county recorder would redact that information. So, we signed a contract with US imaging, which is a microfilm CD company. That they transfer everything onto CD’s – in 2009. In April of 2010, they came to the office, and they scanned in all old documents, the brand books, the lien books, all of ‘em. Amazing work they did. But we cannot give these CD’s out to people and we cannot put them on the Internet because of the Arizona revised statutes.
“You cannot put online unless these documents have been redacted, and proofed, and indexed,” she continued. “They have to be. If you put ‘em online, and you just see all these pages, how do you know whose they are? Unless you go one by one.”
Feezor said he believes the recorder’s office has only just started to index these documents so they can find them to redact the information.
In a speech to the Democratic Party in Payson, Nye said he has heard many business people complain about the lack of customer service from the recorder’s office. In a subsequent email, Nye wrote, “Go to San Carlos, Canyon Day, Hayden/Winkelman and ask the community leaders if they have been treated equitably or fairly. They tell me they have not.”
Improving customer service
Nye believes the citizens of Gila County deserve to be treated with respect. If elected, he said he would start a customer service survey to reward those in the office with excellent customer service skills.
Feezor visited numerous real estate offices and heard that it can take up to two months to receive the deed for a property.
Tomerlin responded to the lack of customer service accusation in an email, “They (the other candidates) need to fabricate things to create a platform for their bid for the position. I have received a couple complaints but that is because they do not understand the process – once we explain the process and statutes they have no problem. We do receive complaints regarding other departments such as their tax billing. Many times people do not understand the regulations and state statues we are governed by. So for anyone that says they would do things different either does not understand what they are saying or they are downright being untruthful to the public about what they actually are capable of doing.”
Explains 50 percent annual staff turnover
Feezor said the complaints of customer service might result from high staff turn over.
In the four years Tomerlin has run the Recorder’s office, 20 people have left.
Feezor requested statistics on Tomerlin’s staff over the last four years and discovered, 60 percent resigned, 20 percent retired, 10 percent transferred to another department, 5 percent were fired and 5 percent declined an offer of employment.
Tomerlin currently has a staff of 10 people and on average loses half of them each year. Learning the ropes takes time, which could make customer service difficult, said Feezor.
North versus South in staffing
Now that the 2010 census data shows that most of the population resides in Northern Gila County and the supervisor redistricting maps have changed to reflect that population difference, a debate rages over the distribution of resources between the North and South of Gila County.
Both Tomerlin and Nye reside in Globe, which is the county seat. When asked why the recorder’s office had only two staff people in Payson and eight in Globe, including the office supervisor for Payson, Tomerlin responded, “Of course, there are more staff at the county headquarters for the recorder’s office as that is where the county seat. The staff located at the office in Payson, or the satellite facility, is adequate to handle any workload that is necessary. This thought of moving more staff to Payson for work that is non-existent is a fabricated issue only for a stump speech. The majority of real estate documents do NOT come through the Payson office. The majority of the documents come through the mail or e-recording.
We receive approximately 40 documents per day in the mail and approximately 30 e-recordings a day. As for the walk-ins, the Globe office records approximately 25 documents a day and the Payson Office records approximately 15 documents a day.”
Nye said, “We need to shift the staff to the office that truly needs the resources.
Assessing staffing needs by location should not be that difficult.
Staff will need to adjust to the fact that they may have to travel to other sites as demand dictates.”
Feezor, a Payson resident, said that when he asked Tomerlin about the discrepancy, she told him that she and Judy Smrdel (the Payson supervisor) travel to Payson twice per week.
Curious to prove what Tomerlin said, Feezor requested either the logs on the county vehicle Tomerlin and Smrdel used to travel or expense reports on fuel charges. The reply for this information came back: “Nothing responsive to your requests,” said Feezor.
He decided to guesstimate how much these trips cost Gila County taxpayers for the roughly 104 trips Tomerlin and Smrdel say they make each year. His estimate came to $28,800, which includes 51 cents a mile for gas and car expenses, Tomerlin’s $30-an-hour pay, and mrdel’s $18-an-hour rate.
Feezor believes that moving the Payson supervisor to Payson would improve the budget and customer service.