Objection - Internet Viewing Fee
[Editor's note: The Virginian-Pilot, using convoluted logic and unfounded statements, recently endorsed Tina Sinnen - the least qualified manager for the Virginia Beach Clerk of Courts office. One of the unfounded statements on which the Pilot relied was Sinnen's contention that charging the public to use the Internet to view court records was necessary to 1). keep nosey Nellies from checking up on their friends and neighbors out of curiosity; and 2). because the income from a $3 technology filing fee would end when the law expires in 2005 and she needed the money to run the office by charging the public to view otherwise free public documents.
[The Pilot basically called her two major opponents, Eric T. Schmudde and Wally Erb, ignorant of the law and unqualified. Turned out that both of them were correct when they said the law allowing collection of the fee would not expire until 2008. The Pilot issued a correction, but not an apology for basing such an important pronouncement on such faulty information from the least qualified candidate. Below is Wally Erb's response to the Pilot's distorted editorial.]
By Walter W. "Wally" Erb
In the 10/1/03 (Pilot) editorial "Refreshing directness from a novice candidate" the editorial staff, without factual verification, unequivocally accepted Tina Sinnenís directness. One error, the expiration date of the $3 recordation fee, was subsequently corrected the following day.
However, other statements made by the novice candidate also require corroboration. The editorial infers that the software firm selected to perform the online services was the result of an impartial city hall selection committee. Accurately, the contract award was at the sole discretion of the Clerk of the Court from qualified bid proposals of fifteen submissions validated by a committee.
Also noteworthy, the selected contracting firm is cognizant for billing and collection of the on-line fees.
The editorial fails to address the primary purpose of the online fee. Revenue generation was a minor consideration. The enacting legislation is a weak compromise to hinder identity theft. As such, the viewing charge circumvents free access to deter general viewing. Sinnen substantiated this at a Virginia Beach taxpayer Alliance meeting (Saturday 9/27/03) when she publicly stated that a benefit of the online charge was to discourage "nosey neighbors" from viewing records.
Public records are just that - public. It is about open government free from a veil of secrecy. In all cases, researchers are not just nosy, but may be community activists, students, and even Virginian-Pilot or freelance reporters. The exploration might require viewing numerous records to obtain the required data. At fifty cents a pop, this can be quite costly.
More importantly, viewing records online requires an identity registration. Individual anonymity is sacrificed and your name, date, time, and documents viewed may be permanently recorded in the governmental database. This is akin to having "Big Brother" peering over your shoulder while browsing in the public library.
The online viewing charge is not only a denial of free access to public records and a taxpayer penalty; it is an infringement to freedom.
Erb, an ex-Republican Party activist, is running as an independent candidate for the Virginia Beach Clerk of the Circuit Court.