Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

May 2, 2014

Courthouse record keeping constrained

Boris Ladwig
Greensburg Daily News

---- — GREENSBURG -- Water routinely enters the Decatur County courthouse basement, either rushing in after a heavy rainfall or dripping in here or there through leaky pipes.

In the newer section of the Decatur County Courthouse, documents rest in boxes that must sit several inches above the floor to protect them from water that may attack from below. Black tarps cover the brown boxes to protect the documents from water that may drip down from above.

Nearby, in the “equipment graveyard,” old chairs and tables languish topsy-turvy, waiting for the next owner. A few steps away, more brown boxes rest on more brown pallets covered by more black tarps. Some boxes are marked “shred,” while others have hand-written notes such as “Highway annual reports,” “Corrections from assessors” and “Bridge maps.” Some of the writing is crossed out and replaced with new writing, as courthouse employees reuse the boxes, which can cost $15 a piece.

The reuse sometimes makes it difficult to figure out what the box actually contains, said Decatur County Auditor Tami Wenning.

Frequent personnel changes — because of elections, retirements and employee turnover — and the lack of standard operating procedures has produced a mish-mash approach of record keeping and storing. During construction, records are removed, sometimes to other buildings, and later refiled — or forgotten. That, too, makes records difficult to retrieve.

The county offices in the building handle a staggering amount of paper. The clerk’s office alone added 735 civil cases in 2012. That’s 735 folders, most with only a few pages, but a nasty divorce here and there can run into the hundreds of pages. That year, the clerk’s office also added 592 small claims cases, 248 juvenile cases and 871 criminal cases. The other offices — treasurer, assessor, recorder — also produce enormous amounts of records.

Files for many active court cases are kept in the clerk’s office, on the second floor, for easy retrieval by court personnel. The offices east and west walls are lined with thick books of court judgments and double rows of sliding cabinets with folders of active case files.

“We have a weight limit up here. That’s why we try to keep everything close to a wall,” said Decatur County Clerk Janet Chadwell.

The office has no room for older case files. Toward the end of each year, the clerk’s office staff carries boxes of files into the basement. Some records, such as paid speeding tickets, can be destroyed after as little as two years, others, such as marriage and will records must be kept forever.

Meanwhile, two floors below the clerk’s office, in another section of the courthouse basement, thick tomes of handwritten marriage records collect dust on shelves behind black tarps.

The fragility and sheer amount of records also presents accessibility challenges. Wenning said that courthouse staff cannot simply allow anyone to peruse the records without supervision for fear that they could get damaged or stolen.

And with a tight county budget and little idle time for courthouse employees, office holders cannot send staffers to accompany visitors to make sure they handle the records with care.

Some of the oldest books used to be kept in burlap sacks and sustained water and rodent damage, Wenning said.

She said the records are a part of the community, and provide insight into how people used to live. Some records bring long-forgotten times to life.

Suzanne Hahn, vice president of the Indiana Historical Society Library and Archives, agreed.

“County records are important, because they tell the story of the communities and people who have shaped the history of that area,” Hahn said via email. “They can document how a community has grown and changed over the years and provide a footprint as to why and how decisions were made. They can help a wide range of users from genealogists studying their family, to students researching the legal history of a topic, to residents exploring the history of their property.”

Wenning said she still shudders when she reads how easily people were committed to an institution 150 years ago — but she especially enjoys reading the hand-written will records, for example, which include people leaving their descendents the strangest possessions, even a one-eyed horse.

Chadwell said that during construction in the mid-1990s, some records were removed from the courthouse to protect them and to make room for construction crews. On Wednesday, courthouse staff learned that the basement of a vacant building on the south side of the square contains 20 boxes full of probate records on microfilm from the 1980s.

Chadwell said it’s exciting to be able to find some lost records.

But, she said, “some files we just can’t find.”

Chadwell said she would like to digitize all of the old records, but finding the funds in an already tight budget is difficult.

Wenning said that while modern technology has helped county offices do more with fewer people, new state laws often mean more bureaucracy, which somewhat negates the efficiencies of computerized records and emails.

Underneath the courthouse’s central stairs to the basement, a door allows entrance to the building’s bowels. This labyrinthine older section is dominated by red brick archways and low ceilings. One room contains a coal burning stove. Nearby, a blinking tower of wires and the hum of a compressor nullify the basement’s medieval dungeon atmosphere.

In this part of the building, too, shelves are covered by tarps. Some hallways are stacked with boxes from the 1800s that are being inventoried. Around a corner, more boxes sit on the floor, covered by more tarps and white sheets of paper with labels marked “Clerk” and “misc.”

Wenning said that several county offices, including her’s and Chadwell’s, will work together this summer, with the help of some seasonal workers, to improve the record keeping order.

More photos from this story can be found at www.greensburgdailynews.com/photos.

Contact: Boris Ladwig 812-663-3111 x7401; boris.ladwig@greensburgdailynews.com