Politics

Clerks say they still plan to charge for Vermont land records

TJ Donovan
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan says fees should be paid when a viewer takes a photo of a public record, a position that is not shared by Gov. Phil Scott or Secretary of State Jim Condos. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

This story by Anna Merriman was published in the Valley News on Nov. 24.

HARTFORD — Although a recent Vermont Supreme Court ruling determined that state agencies must allow people to inspect records for free, several town clerks in the Upper Valley said that taking a personal photo of land records will still result in a charge.

Since the ruling, handed down in September, Secretary of State Jim Condos and Gov. Phil Scott have said that because there can’t be a charge for inspecting records from state agencies, there shouldn’t be a charge for taking your own photograph of the record.

For some records, many town clerks are on board, not charging a fee if members of the public take their own photos, or use a personal scanner, of such documents as meeting minutes and grand lists.

But when it comes to land records, town clerks and some public records advocates differ.

Town clerks across Vermont charge $1 per page for copies of land records. They refer to a state statute, which says they can charge the fee for “uncertified copies of records and documents on file, or recorded.” Land records include everything from deeds to property tax records, and they’re stored in a vault and maintained by the town clerk.

“Land records have their own fees set in statute,” said Barre City Clerk Carol Dawes, who said that the fees apply whether a person is physically copying a land record with a machine owned by the town or taking their own photo of it. “They help to cover the cost of staffing and storing these records in perpetuity.”

Dawes isn’t alone in her reasoning. Many clerks throughout the Upper Valley charge for cellphone photos as well as physical copies, saying that the money generated by the records fee goes into a general fund to support land record maintenance and upkeep.

“A dollar-per-page goes to supply the continued existence of the vault,” said Hartland Assistant Town Clerk Laura Bergstresser. “You are paying for a peace of mind knowing that there’s a place to keep these records.”

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Others, like Hartford Town Clerk Lisa O’Neil and Norwich Town Clerk Bonnie Munday, sidestep the issue by barring the public from using phones while looking at land records. However, O’Neil said, if someone was insistent on using their phone to take a photo of a land record, they would still be charged.

Attorney General TJ Donovan said in a recent commentary that government agencies should be paid when a viewer takes a photo of a public record. Donovan noted the “enormous cost to Vermont taxpayers in preparing those documents,” as a reason for the fee.

The policy held by many Vermont town clerks is concerning to some public records advocates, including Justin Silverman, the executive director of the Massachusetts-based New England First Amendment Coalition, who said that establishing a fee for photographing land records — when it’s free to look at those same records — sets up a barrier between the public and their right to know.

“(Doyle vs. Burlington) is pretty clear that the public shouldn’t be charged,” he said, referencing the September Supreme Court ruling. “With these records being public, there shouldn’t be any fee.”

Jim Condos
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

When it comes to the cost of upkeep and maintaining land records, Silverman said he’s sympathetic but that keeping those records is part of the town clerk’s job.

“That cost shouldn’t be shifted beyond tax dollars,” he said, adding that the fees are left over from a time before digital photography was ubiquitous. Charging people for taking their own photos of land records is nothing more than a “way to maintain revenue,” he said.

Indeed, O’Neil, the Hartford town clerk, said in an October email to the Secretary of State’s Office that copying fees — which can be unavoidable in Hartford since the town clerk’s office doesn’t allow the use of cameras — are an important source of revenue for the town’s general fund, more than $11,200 in 2018 alone.

“I think it is important to understand the potential consequences of the stance taken by the governor and secretary of state if it applies at the local level,” she wrote. “Or, a clear path to make up the lost revenue should be proposed. Just my two cents.”

Condos, who supported the ruling and otherwise opposes charging for phone photos, sides with town clerks on the issue of land records. In an interview Friday, Condos referenced the state statute, saying that clerks should charge for phone photos of those specific records.

“Land records are separate,” he said, adding that they’re different from other public records in the way that they’re permanent, physical records that town clerks have a responsibility to maintain.

The ACLU of Vermont agrees that the Supreme Court ruling does not extend to land records.

“The Doyle decision does not address whether town clerks can charge fees associated with requests to view land use records, whether or not the requestor takes a picture of the record. Such requests are not covered by the Public Records Act, but instead by a different statute,” ACLU Staff Attorney Lia Ernst wrote in an email Friday.

Regardless of the questions surrounding land records and photographs, some town clerks have their own exemptions to the $1 fee.

Munday said she doesn’t charge property owners from Norwich who want a copy of their own land records, and O’Neil said she doesn’t charge someone who’s taking a copy of a land record for official town business. Others, like Royalton Town Clerk Karmen Bascom, charge everyone equally, though she said she’s happy to change policy if the law dictates it.

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For Dawes, the Barre City town clerk, the primary issues come down to clarity and awareness.

“There hasn’t been any good, concerted effort to get the word out to us,” she said, discussing what the court decision means for town clerks’ records. “Are there gaps that have now been created or gray areas that have now been defined? Just having that clarity is important.”

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tom burke

None of this makes any sense–not the journalism–the position taken by T.J Donovan and many town clerks. A photo of a record is not asking the clerk to redact documents as in Doyle vs. City of Burlington, just a photo of an existing PUBLIC document. Same should be said for land documents-a cell phone photo is not a legal document, just an easy way to make a personal record.
A better debate would be asking town clerks why aren’t those same records you want to charge $1 to copy available on the web?

Vic Noble

So, a dollar per page to copy or snap a photo, if you are seeking it, sounds fair. The cost of, in many cases mandatory, recording the land record document however is egregious, $15 per page. It went up this past summer from $10 per page. I think towns are more than compensated for maintaining land records which are increasingly available electronically which causes no wear and tear on the volumes.

John Shaplin

The average cost of title insurance in America is $1,000. Everybody has to pay it. Since all the records are now secure, not like on the frontier when this racket began, seems like the title insurance companies should pay a tax to support what the Town and State do to protect them and allow owner and lenders to make free copies of the records on presentation of a receipt of their title insurance payment. Can’t do it though, it would be like taking candy from a baby, bunch of folks would have to get a real job instead of living off the fat of the land.

edward letourneau

Just another case of the bureaucracy taking care of itself, instead of serving the public. Vermont is the most corrupt state in the union and no one cares.

Daniel Woodbury

It would be interesting to know how many town clerks keep the fees they collect as their compensation (and the amount thereof), as opposed to receiving a salary or wages, and turning the collected fees over to the town treasurer.

Jude Hazelton

Seems like double dipping, they get paid as regular employees, then they charge extra for one off tasks.

Bill Murray

Let’s acknowledge that technological changes often require that we look at new ways to maintain the financial support for things that we value. This is not a 1st amendment issue, it’s a budgetary issue. Digital recording is becoming the norm and this is not a bad thing. Now we need to decide how to fairly charge for this service. It’s similar to the dilemma over the fact that we don’t charge electric vehicles a gas tax, yet they use the same roads that the gas tax helps maintain.

 

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