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Opinion: Making government records accessible is a matter of public safety

John Gleason

No matter how conservative or progressive our elected leaders are, the government we elect them to is antiquated in leveraging old systems, dated technology or, in the case of keeping vital records, no technology at all.

New clerks have seen this in recent elections, and this absence of technology is what we found in the city of Flint in tracking records around lead pipe remediation.

In cities and counties across America, property records and other records are on notecards, stored in a file cabinet and tucked away in nondescript buildings throughout our nation, including in Flint.

I approached the state with the idea of digitizing Genesee County records starting with the lead pipe remediation then underway in Flint, Gleason writes.

In 2015, my office worked with what is now the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy and the Department of Natural Resources to search for lead water lines in the city of Flint, and were unable to find accurate records. All the records were found on notecards in city filing cabinets. There was no way sellers or buyers of properties in the city of Flint would have any knowledge of whether their home contained lead pipes.

The Flint water crises lead pipe contamination affected approximately 20,000 parcels.  Since 2016, the city has inspected more than 25,000 service lines, and replaced more than 9,000 lead and galvanized pipes. Flint started replacing service lines and connected city homes and businesses to city water mains in the wake of the city’s water crisis.

In 2016 I approached the state with the idea of digitizing Genesee County records, starting with the lead pipe remediation then underway in Flint. Digitizing these vital records was important for homeowners to know which lines have been replaced and when they were replaced, along with recording the city of Flint affidavits that could be searchable online.

Through a state grant, Genesee County was able to digitize the records of 5,000 homes in the first phase of the Lead Pipe Remediation Annotation Program, which cost $50,000. Genesee became the first county in the nation to digitize and record affidavits relating to lead pipe replacement restoration efforts. In Flint we still have to ensure the records of 15,000 more homes are updated and accessible, and we hope to secure funding to complete this effort.

Digitizing the records has made it easier for people to find out which pipes have been replaced, and which homes are now free of these “dirty” pipes. It also has allowed for greater transparency, with the seller to the buyer knowing the home was remediated or never had a problem in the first place. With this information now accessible, owners will have critical information on the status of their property.

From Pontiac to Pere Marquette and Flint to Fruitport, communities across our state are replacing lead water service lines, while we continue to be concerned about properties contaminated by PFAS. As we work to replace these pipes, we must all ensure we make our government records open, transparent and accessible.

As clerks, however, we need to be stronger advocates to secure the requisite funds to ensure our counties have access to technological enhancements crucial to not only safeguarding our elections, but also to protect the health and safety of the people we serve. For example, our office has leveraged technology so you can access the campaign finance reports of candidates, to stabilize property values and protect county records from cyber-terrorism. In 2019 Genesee County was hit by a ransomware attack, but because of the systems we had in place, the land records were not affected.

As we continue to live in unprecedented times, we must look at the government differently. Imagine a government that is transparent and efficient, with easy access to records you need without coming into a government building. To do this we need to modernize our systems and put processes in place that work for everyone. With the election now behind us, fixing our aging infrastructure must become a priority. However, there is more to protecting our citizens than replacing a lead pipe.

We must ensure our antiquated systems of record-keeping are open and accessible. This means ensuring clerks and registers of deeds across the state have the tools they need to open their records to the public by ensuring they are accessible online, and not tucked away in a cabinet.

John Gleason is the Genesee County clerk and register of deeds.