November 13, 2005

Public Records Room Reported to be Like a Dungeon

The Public Records Room housed in the Union County Court House building in Elizabeth is one of the few places where the general public has unlimited access to in the county government complex. However, the County Watchers have heard it is not exactly the place where the average citizen would choose to spend much time.

The Records Room is home to thousands of public documents, both old and new, and is managed by the Union County Clerk, Joanne Rajoppi, who just recently won reelection to this salaried public position for another term.

Poorly ventilated, extremely dusty, with peeling paint and traces of mold, the room also houses title searchers who pour over the documents relating to Union County real estate transactions. Although they spend the business day working there, they are not county employees. Rather, they are employed by title companies, attorneys or even as contractors working on a per diem basis, their mission is to detect any encumbrances which would get in the way of a buyer obtaining a clear title to a piece of real estate in Union County.

Rajoppi’s office is charged with keeping county records and land-use documents dating back to the County’s founding in 1857 when Union County split from Essex County. This is a valuable historic archive, and according to the clerk, are not just stale pieces of paper. We would have to agree with her.

Recently Union County received more that $1 million in grants from the state for projects to launch record-keeping into the 21st century with technical and strategic improvements and will be split between the offices of the Union County Clerk and the Clerk of the Board of Chosen Freeholders. (Perhaps that will help Nicole T. and supervisors keep accurate employee attendance records and locate other “non-existent” documents). Some of the monies have been earmarked as follows: $311,065 for map restoration, $77,734 to pay for a records manager, and $60,000 for commercial storage. These monies come from New Jersey’s Public Archives and Records Infrastructure Support Program, or PARIS.

One visitor to the Public Records Room related to the County Watchers that it was a “Dusty old room,” which was “very stuffy” and they had almost expected to see Bob Cratchet negotiating with Ebenezer Scrooge for an extra piece of coal. However, the outside temperature was over 80 degrees that day and the room is not air conditioned nor is it ventilated so it felt like 100. It has also been reported that the water fountain was removed recently and one of the ceiling fans fell and has not been replaced. Some insiders have also reported an unpleasant odor from time to time which they feel could be attributed to the room’s proximity to the old UC jail and possible “outdoor plumbing problems” which needs no further explanation. The bottom line here is that working conditions are said to be unbearable.

Most of us working in a dusty room with mold in the corners, peeling paint that could contain lead, poor ventilation and no air conditioning in the heat of summer would be calling OSHA anonymously to complain. However, this course of action is not an option in this situation as these individuals are not employees and the few county employees working in this area have opted to keep their mouths shut, that being the case they, the title searchers, have no where to turn.

Ms Rajoppi, to her credit, takes the preservation and recording of documents/records quite seriously and has moved forward utilizing the latest technology to the fullest making these records available to the general public through the standard manual means as well as through the Internet.

At this point in time preliminary title searches can be done online, as the first page of most documents going back some 20 years can be accessed offsite but the searcher must still view the actual remaining pages in person to determine anything unusual which may cause problems with a buyer obtaining a clear title to a property. Even with the new technology in place searchers are required to spend hours in the Public Records Room.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, mold of the common variety in most cases is not a major health hazard but does pose a risk to those suffering from respiratory deficiencies, such as asthma, as well as individuals with compromised immune systems or even suffering from the common cold.

Those who are allergic to dust and mold are advised to stay out of these types of situations as serious sinus infections can occur from prolonged exposure and headaches are common among even the healthiest of individuals. One wonders just what form of mold is present and if it has been tested for toxicity - as in a building this age it could be Stachybotrys, a very unhealthy variety.

Exposure to peeling paint and the accompanying dust it creates is also less than desirable if the paint contains lead - and most paint did prior to the mid 70s. Extended exposure can lead to lead poisoning, causing a myriad of health problems even in adults.

A good HVAC system could squelch these problems and also provide a comfortable work environment.

Ms. Rajoppi prides herself on the dollars that the office of the County Clerk has managed to rake in from fees these past few years. Her recent campaign literature says her office has delivered $30 million in tax savings, though she doesn’t say for what period of time. Coincidentally, the county budget in 2005 went up just that amount this year alone so apparently it didn’t really help much to relieve the burden on taxpayers especially spread out over her five year term.

She seems to have forgotten that the very people who pay the fees for copies of the documents are the general public, the attorneys, and the title searchers employers and clients. They are the ones being short changed here.

Ms. Rajoppi would do well to campaign for the funds to tidy up things in her own space and for her own county workers as well as the visitors to the records room before she tackles funding for uncovering the hidden blue skies of the courthouse dome.