LISBON - The overcrowded situation at the Columbiana County Courthouse grew worse this week following a visit from the fire safety inspector for the Lisbon Fire Department.
Kurt Gresh told county officials following his inspection they must restrict access to the offices and other areas used by people performing mineral rights searches on behalf of shale gas drilling companies.
The immediate result was a line of up to 12 workers or more waiting to get inside the county recorder's office to use the microfilm machines or review the hard-bound deed books.
People performing mineral rights searches wait for their turn in the county recorder’s office. (Photo by Deanne Johnson)
"He told me we were only allowed to have so many people in each room, but it was up to us how we worked it out," said Recorder Craig Brown.
Gresh ordered only five people at one time be allowed in that room where the bound books are stored and four in the other room in the recorder's office where Brown has some microfilm/printer machines used by researchers.
The researchers are also allowed to use a larger room in the basement that contains additional microfilm/printer machines. Gresh came across more than 20 people working in there and at least that many more waiting outside. He will have to review the state square-footage requirements before placing a limit on that room.
Then there was the issue of the five folding tables placed along a wall in the courthouse basement where lease workers set up operations with their laptop computers. Gresh said those tables will have to be removed.
"That's a hazard. That area should be clear so you get out at either end" of the hallway, he said.
"My concern is if something happens and people have to get out ... I can't have that. It's a safety factor," Gresh said of the overcrowded conditions.
Brown said he has already given county commissioners some suggestions to alleviate the overcrowding, such as allowing him to make the deeds available online or extending his office hours, but they have declined to take him up on either.
"This is a problem that could have been solved weeks ago but, unfortunately, this is an example of government inaction," he said.
Commissioner Mike Halleck said they were working on a possible long-term solution before Gresh showed up, such as moving all of the mineral rights researchers, equipment and deed books to another county building where there is space
"We are contemplating our options, but (Brown) is the recorder and ultimately responsible for dealing with this," Halleck said. "This situation just didn't start yesterday," he added, referring to the fact the mineral rights researchers arrived in the county two years ago.
Brown said he had heard commissioners were contemplating moving everything out of the courthouse, and he is not necessarily opposed. "They can't do anything without clearing it through my office, but I'm open to any suggestion," he said.
Some of the mineral rights researchers told the Morning Journal other counties where they have worked addressed the problem by allotting each of them a time slot but that has never been done here. Researchers instead wait for each other to finish using a microfilm machine, which did not appear to be been much of a problem until now.
Coincidentally, the inspection occurred the same day after a story appeared in The Review about Democratic commissioner candidate Joe Csonka criticizing commissioners for failing to act on Brown's plan to make the records available online. On Tuesday, a crew from a local TV station showed up after being tipped off.
Lisbon Fire Chief David Lewton said he told Gresh to perform an inspection after receiving some complaints over the past several weeks but they came from the public and not anyone inside the courthouse.
Commissioners are opposed to the idea of making the deeds available online for several reasons, such as the possible loss of $52,000 in copying fees. Csonka suggested creating a paywall for downloading copies online, but Brown said state law prevents him from charging a fee for online copies.
"The Ohio Revised Code does not give us that option," he said.
The recorder's office can charge for making copies because it is using staff and county paper to do so, but there is no county expense involved for making copies if a person can just download the deed onto their own computer and print out a copy.
Brown disputed whether the loss of funds would as great as expected given the cost involved in maintaining equipment. "The money we're spending on toner alone is insane," he said.
Commissioners are also concerned about making deeds available online that may still contain personal information, such as a Social Security number. Brown said Social Security numbers and other privacy information has been redacted from all deeds dating back to 2000, and they could not be sued anyway over the inadvertent release of such information.
This was disputed by Commissioner John Payne, who believes other counties have been sued under similar circumstances. Also, he said two mineral rights researchers told him they found Social Security numbers still on deeds.
As for extending the recorder's office hours, commissioners said Brown has yet to present them with a detailed plan. "Craig needs to come up with some costs and other details before we agree to anything," Payne said.
Halleck said although commissioners have tried to address the problem created by the mineral rights researchers, the recorder is the one ultimately responsible.
"Instead of leaving office under a cloud of confusion, he (Brown) should be working to solve this problem," Halleck said.
Brown, who was up for re-election this year, lost in the March 6 Democratic primary election to Brenda Myers, and his term expires Dec. 31. Halleck suggested Brown resign in February following allegations Brown made improper comments to a female former employee.