Following the adoption of a number-drawing system, the occupation of "line standing" in Tyler County is considered a thing of the past. Outlined by County Clerk Teresea Hamilton and her office, this new "lottery" routine will determine at random and on a daily basis which time slots are granted to abstractors for the following day's access to the record vault. The Tyler County Commission accepted this method at a special meeting held Thursday evening, and it went into effect on the following day.
Abstractors are employed by oil and gas companies in order to research property deeds. The companies then use the information gathered to contact and draft leases with the correct property owners. Because space limitations in the vault permit a maximum of 16 people in the room at a time, abstractors vied to sign in for two hour blocks. A "sliding" system was also implemented to fill spaces vacated before assigned time periods ended.
Line standing began in April as a way for abstractors to gain earlier access to the record vault each morning. They began hiring people to stay overnight outside of the courthouse, physically holding their positions. Since then, it was not uncommon to see groups lined around the building from evening to morning, reportedly "camping." As well as safety issues cited by county officials, citizens also described issues they were having with line standers. Because the lottery system will assign random yet distinct times for vault access, the county clerk and commission expressed that there should no longer be a need for line standers.
The Tyler County Commission and members of other courthouse offices meet with the community in order to discuss future plans for oil and gas activity.
The new system will function as follows:
- Drawing will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays.
- Each abstractor will draw a numbered card/ball to coincide with the number on the time slot sheet.
- Abstractors will be drawing a time slot for the next day.
- Time sheets will be hung each morning by 8 a.m.
- Abstractors must draw their own number.
- If an abstractor pulls a number where there are already two people from the same company signed up, they will put their number back and draw again.
- There will be no trading of time slots.
- If an abstractor does not have a time slot, they will need to utilize the three slide-in chairs located in the main hallway outside the County Clerk's office.
- If an abstractor finds they are unable to use their time slot, they must cross out their name and initial beside it with the time signed out.
- There should be no names added to the bottom of the sign in sheet. The three spots are reserved for the public, attorneys, and surveyors. If more room is needed for the public, attorneys and surveyors may need to step out of the record room for a period of time.
- The record room must be cleared at the top of the hour. At five minutes before the hour, they should start gathering their belongings to exit on time.
- If the record room is not full at 15 minutes past the hour, roll call will be done by the county clerk's staff. If there are open spots, those in the slide-in chairs will be given the opportunity to enter the record room and be signed in by the county clerk's staff.
- One time slot per day is available per abstractor.
- Two abstractors per company per sign in sheet.
"I really feel this will work for us," said Hamilton, whose office is responsible for maintaining vault activity.
"The girls in the (county clerk's) office worked very hard to come up with something beneficial and fair to the abstractors and also the citizens of the county," said Commission President John Stender.
This lottery method is not the first change the courthouse has undertaken to accommodate the county's growing oil and gas activities. In February, donations from energy companies paid for an extension to courthouse hours for 90 working days, keeping the building open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Mondays-Thursdays, and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays. While the last day for the current contract is July 31, the commission has voted to renew it for another 45 working days, with the energy companies continuing to pay for the extended hours.
Stender revealed further developments to record access, such as the eventual transfer of books to an online format.
"We have a verbal commitment from oil and gas companies to digitize all of our books," he said. "We want this to be done correctly. It's not only for you people here today. It's for people who come 50 years from now and try to find where their great-great-grandfather's property is."
While the scanning of the Grantor and Grantee indexes by Affiliated Computer Service (ACS) began Friday, the commission plans to put out bids soon for the complete digitization of record room files.
Stender described their work during the last year and a half, such as the new cabling system to be installed in the courthouse.
"The county has spent about $100,000 getting the courthouse ready," he said. He then pointed to additional costs which oil and gas companies have agreed to invest: "The project itself is going to cost about $400,000."
Hamilton pointed to a previous grant her office received to redo nine land books which were in poor condition, as well as covering the digital scanning of those books. She also mentioned her office's role in the digitizing of books from 1998 forward.
As well as county officials, at least 44 abstractors and members of the community attended the meeting. Stender responded to several questions about the new rules.
"If you want to try to get around everything and mess with everyone else who's trying to get the job done, go for it," he said of those who may try to bend the rules. "I have no problem throwing you out."
When local resident Sherry Perkey stated that parking had become an issue even before the arrival of line standers. Stender revealed that they are working with another county entity to find more parking space for courthouse activity. East Street resident Brandy Glover-Frye described a large amount of cigarette butts littered in her yard.
"I'll gladly prosecute a littering case," said Prosecuting Attorney Luke Furbee, who stated that such instances must be reported in order for legal action to be taken.
Furbee discussed other ways to resolve issues.
"There is a misdemeanor statute that we can enforce," he said of a state law that makes it illegal to erect camping equipment on and or adjacent to courthouse property.
He suggested enacting a countywide ordinance against loitering, and the commission determined to have him draft such an ordinance.
"I think that the commissioners have done the best job that they can do right now with the situation that they're in," said Chuck Mossor, chairman of Middle Island Marcellus and Utica Minerals and Landowners Group. "I think that Teresea (Hamilton) and the staff in the clerk's office and courthouse have devised a plan that is very workable."
While the drawing system was accepted as a fair solution for abstractors and county offices, several of the line standers expressed their discontent with the decision.
"Roughly 200 people just lost their jobs," said line stander Stephanie Kelley of the commission's decision. Kelley stated that she was using her earnings to pay for college expenses.
The line standers pointed to a suffering job market and a need to take care of their families. In defense of their positions, they stated that they were not hurting anyone. As for recent local crime, they felt that such problems had begun in Middlebourne prior to their arrival and questioned how they could be standing in line and committing a crime elsewhere at the same time.
"The changes made were to better the situation inside the courthouse," said Hamilton following the meeting. According to her, the ultimate goal was to make things more organized. Although she expressed that the line standing jobs had always been temporary at best, given the inevitable digitization of courthouse records, she recognized the loss of jobs.
"I know what it's like to lose a job. I'm the last person who would want to see someone lose a job. I would never intentionally hurt anyone in this county. I want to do the best I can for them. That's why I pushed and pushed to digitize these records. We need to protect ourselves for years to come. The digitizing is the answer."
She went on to say that digitizing the records will not only alleviate the traffic in the vault, but it will keep records preserved for the future, which was always her goal.
"I would really like to thank the staff that has contributed their time away from their families to alleviate this issue," said Hamilton. She also extended her appreciation to other offices for their support.
Sheriff "Bob" Kendle reported that line standers have not shown up since Thursday evening. Although he felt that the amount of people lining around the courthouse created safety issues, such as fire hazards, he described his daily encounters with line standers as primarily positive.
"Most of them are very nice people," he said.