In the competitive race for Albemarle County clerk of court, incumbent Debbie Shipp’s October 20 announcement that her office is using electronic recording for real estate and other documents two weeks before the election has her opponents questioning the timing.
“E-recording is a great idea,” says John Zug, Shipp’s Democratic opponent in the race. “What I’m concerned about is the timing and nature in which this happened.”
For those involved in real estate and other record filing in Albemarle, getting documents where they need to go may have just gotten easier. In July, the clerk’s office started using Simplifile—a web program that records documents electronically. Now organizations that submit documents to the clerk’s office through express mail or by standing in line to record them can simply submit their records online for only $5 per successful recording. Otherwise, the price can be higher depending on the document being recorded.
If the system was implemented in July, independent candidate George Foresman wonders why, Shipp waited until October to make the announcement. And he questions a mailing inviting people to the e-recording unveiling that was signed by Shipp on county stationery. “It smacks of ethical impropriety from a perceptional standpoint,” he says.
“I haven’t seen the filings yet, but I’m suspecting that this letter was sent out on taxpayers’ money,” Zug says, adding that Shipp may have used the announcement to further her campaign.
According to Shipp, though, she wasn’t responsible for sending the letters, but rather Simplifile representative Marc Arrowood was. In fact, he paid for the light refreshments at the launch party, with Shipp contributing only ice from the office icemaker.
“Believe me,” she says, “I am an Albemarle County taxpayer and I am tight on a dime.”
That Simplifile paid the postage doesn’t mean taxpayers didn’t pay, argues Foresman. “You build that into the contract,” he says.
Albemarle is among the first 20 counties to start using Simplifile in Virginia, says Arrowood. Since the end of July, the program has recorded just under 500 documents, which is routine. He says Simplifile traditionally has launch parties a few months after the program has been implemented so people involved can smooth out any kinks before it debuts.
While some are excited to send records to the courthouse without ever leaving their office, others are skeptical.
Heath Pecorino records deeds for the Charlottesville Settlement Company and is nervous about patrons being able to e-record while others are simultaneously waiting in line at the clerk’s office, specifically because he won’t be able to track both.
“There are windows of time that are crucially important in land transaction deals,” Pecorino says, “and if one thing has happened that might affect another, as the person who is doing those land transaction recordings, I just need to be aware of it.”
“We are working on that part of it,” Shipp says, “to make sure the people in line are being taken care of.” Rather than prioritizing, the office would eventually like to have enough staff to process electronic and in-person recordings separately and as soon as they come in through either medium.
And though he has concerns, Pecorino says the program is still an advancement.
“I’ll probably wind up signing up for this anyway,” Pecorino says. “There are other aspects to it that look absolutely fabulous.”
Llezelle Dugger, Charlottesville’s clerk of court, says her office has not begun e-recording yet, but plans to within a year.
Foresman contends the e-recording announcement is a “shiny object to distract voters” from Shipp’s problem-plagued audits of the clerk’s office. Says Foresman, “Deploying technology for the sake of technology is not going to improve that office.”