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Access to public records is easier but worrisome

"Kitsap County Clerk Dean Logan hopes some newly purchased technology will let people visit the clerk’s office in their underwear.On-line, that is. No more emptying pockets to pass through the metal detector at the county courthouse entrance, no huffing and puffing up two flights of stairs. A new electronic system of scanning and storing court and other official documents may eventually allow county residents to look up public information from their own homes.The technology was purchased from Eagle Imaging Systems for $344,855 and is paid for by a surcharge on documents recorded at the clerk’s office. Phase one will allow docketing clerks to scan in documents and create a record of them electronically. “This will improve our internal efficiency,” said Logan, who eventually hopes to eliminate most of the paper clerks shuffle.That efficiency will also improve access to records, because a paper file limits access to one person at a time, while electronic records can be viewed by many people simultaneously.Phase one of the automation, which is expected to begin Jan. 1, will still require people to come in to the clerk’s office to access records. But in phase two, some information could go on-line or be available through remote access terminals.“Eventually, I envision providing remote access, so an attorney can review a file or a person can review their divorce records,” Logan said. People may even be able to print out certified copies of a record and pay for the certification online with their credit cards.But improving access to public records raises a privacy issue: Some public records, like divorce proceedings, contain many personal details. If these records go on line, anyone at any time can view or reproduce them. Logan said he has mixed feelings about unlimited public access to public information that contains personal details.“The decision (of how much information to put on line) will not be made locally,” Logan said. “There is a concern for personal safety and privacy, but also for this system’s accountability.”That accountability is based, in part, on the public’s right to review public records.Other technology that the new Y2K-compliant system provides is the clerk’s ability to receive faxes and electronic filings directly into the system. And Logan expects that judges will eventually be able to access case files from the bench.Transferring the reams of paper to CD will also cut down on storage space. State law requires 10 years of files to be kept on-site. “I expect that imaging will meet the challenge of the volume from our growing community without necessarily having to add more space and more staff,” Logan said."

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