Nothing Personal

How lean are the bean counters at Dade County's auditing central? Let's put it this way: junk mail of the future may arrive with address labels spit out by a county printer. That's just one option under Dade's bold, new campaign to hawk access to computerized public records.

The plan, called Public Access, allows private firms to tap into a data base filled with civil-court cases, property appraisals, tax-collection records, occupational licenses, building and zoning permits, waste-management accounts, marriage licenses, and - drum roll, please - parking violations. Just buy an IBM-compatible computer and a modem, shell out $250 to uplink and a minimum monthly fee of $75, and you, too, can ferret out which of your neighbors don't pay off their tickets - or their mortgages.

In 1988, after passage of a state statute (Freedom of Information law #119085, for those who like to keep score) that legalized electronic distribution of public records, then-Chief Judge Gerald Wetherington spearheaded the Public Access pilot program. Until last year, the project maintained a low profile, attracting about 80 subscribers, comprising mostly lawyers and real estate companies. But current Clerk of the Court Marshall Ader has instructed the Office of Computer Services and Information Systems to push the service. And push hard.

"Public Access is not going to work if someone doesn't sell it," insists Ader, who predicts 3500 customers eventually will hook into the network. In the past year alone, program manager Jerry Kiernan has nearly doubled the client list, using a vigorous ad campaign and in-person sales pitches to rustle up business. "I used to be a data processor," Kiernan muses. "Now I'm a peddler. I guess today everyone's a salesman."

And Kiernan believes in what he's selling. Computer access to public records was an inevitable step in Dade, he says, one that could help supplement the county's shrinking budget while at the same time meeting the growing demand for public records. With a series of thoughtful taps into his calculator, he estimates 3500 customers would add between two and three million dollars per year to the general fund.

But to those who imagine a world where Big Brother doesn't just watch but also sells what he sees, Public Access may seem an unsettling proposition. Most of us, after all, would prefer that our mortgage foreclosures and delinquent tax notices crawled quietly into the clerical woodwork. Sure, federal law states that public records are open to the citizenry. On the other hand, the law doesn't say anything about soliciting the citizenry to buy instant access to public records. And it can't possibly address the possibilities inherent in placing hitherto tough-to-track-down data a clickety-clack away from a nosy neighbor or scam salesman.

For his part, Ader views the program as merely an innovative means toward unclogging his bureaucracy, which files away 9000 civil documents daily and struggles to keep pace with public demand for records. While he admits the plan carries a "potential for harm," - especially with the probable addition of criminal records to the Public Access menu - Ader notes that it would be illegal to deny data to applicants based on their anticipated improprieties. "Who would decide who gets what information?" he says. "How can that be done equitably? Public Access is for everybody or nobody."

In a free society, Ader suggests, fears about invasion of privacy are inevitable. "The records of a messy divorce are just as public as the records of a purchase of a residence," he says, adding cryptically, "Big Brother is here. You can't go back to 1492, because no one makes sailing ships any more."

Kiernan, a fifteen-year veteran of the county's data-processing ranks, waves off concerns that Public Access will fall victim to bureaucratic voyeurs or dubious businesses. "Most of these records require some additional information for full access," he says, punching into the parking-violation file. "See, you need the tag number or the citation number to call up an individual ticket." Still, in other areas, such as property appraisal, pulling up a property's value and tax status requires nothing more than an address.

On the heels of his promotional push, Kiernan says he has received 300 inquiries and is adding four to ten customers per week - most of them, he stresses, firms with legitimate and pre-existing interests in property records. But beyond such arcane requests, he dreams of more ambitious forays into the burgeoning info market; he foresees the day the county could pair service providers with customers. "With the zoning and occupational licensing records we have, I could go to a pool-cleaning company and tell them, `Hey, I can give you address labels for all the folks with pools in your area.' It's potentially a gold mine, because you can imagine the same scenario many, many, many times over," Kiernan enthuses.

In other words, the county would aid and abet junk mailers?
"I prefer to think of it as stimulating growth in the community," says Kiernan, "helping businesses hook up specifically with their potential customers. It's not just the `resident' junk mail that everyone gets, the Pizza Hut ads and all that." One of his few current customers, for instance, is a defense lawyer who receives mailing labels of drivers recently charged with DWI. (Clerk of the Court Ader, however, isn't so sure the mailing-label scheme is such a good idea. He says he'd have to be convinced before giving the county license to launch the endeavor on a widespread basis.)

What the Public Access concept reflects more broadly, Kiernan stresses, is an attitude that county governments - especially cash-starved outfits such as Dade - should be run more like businesses than bureaucracies. "If I could make millions and millions off of [selling mailing labels], that's just great, because the whole idea is to make a profit and return it to the general fund. It benefits the citizens of Dade County and that's the bottom line."

The bottom line nationally is that county governments are stampeding to Public Access. In California, Idaho, and Virginia, the systems are becoming de rigueur in areas where computer infrastructures exist. Closer to home, the counties of West Palm Beach and Hillsborough are considering starting up programs.

In Pinellas County, Public Access has attracted nearly 700 clients since its 1989 inception, including the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa office of the FBI. Program director Dave Sitter says he understands there are risks to marketing public information for private consumption, but he contends that it beats the tar out of the old system.

"I feel good about it, as a county employer and as a taxpayer, because we've gotten ripped off so many times by people coming in and saying, `Hey, I want that information,' then going out and making a bundle of money off it for themselves. And we, the taxpayers who paid for that information to be stored, are left with nothing.


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