County Recorder Office Called Outmoded : Bureaucracy: Only veteran employees are keeping things on a even keel, a study says. But the agency’s boss says the critical report will help.
Of all the elected county officials currently in office, Recorder Lee A. Branch has been a county employee the longest--and according to an independent study of his department’s operations, his methods are about as old as his service to the county.
As keeper of the county’s birth, death, marriage and property records, Branch, who began his career in 1956 as a clerk in the office he now heads, is paid $71,802 a year to command a staff of more than 100 employees charged with properly maintaining the crucial data. But a recently released independent study conducted last fall by Deloitte & Touche, an auditing and consulting company, says Branch’s old-fashioned record-keeping methods are outmoded in these days of high-tech computers.
The study, which cost the county $45,000, concluded that only the staff’s many years of experience is keeping the department from committing crucial mistakes in the way it is recording the county’s vital information.
“The formal internal controls are not adequate to ensure data integrity; however, data integrity is being achieved through the experience of the county recorder’s staff,” the report said. “We further believe that the changes in the control environment have not kept pace with technological advances.”
The audit was commissioned by the Board of Supervisors in 1989 after a review by the county administrative office concluded that errors in the recorder’s office might expose the county to lawsuits. That study was conducted after a former employee, systems analyst Stan Roach, charged that the recorder’s office was covering up extensive errors in recording deeds and that security to protect vital records was inadequate.
The critical report, which Branch said he welcomes as a means of improving his department, is not the first time Branch has come under fire. Since he was appointed to the office in 1978, Branch, 54, has weathered numerous audits, lawsuits and allegations that charge, among other things, that his office had committed a high number of errors and that his staff displayed “rude behavior” toward the public.
In the Deloitte & Touche report, auditors found several other operational deficiencies. Among them:
* There were no internal controls at the time the report was conducted to prevent errors by data entry operators or employees assigned to verify their work as they entered information directly from an original document into the computer system. The auditors found instances in which the operator entering the data was also assigned to verify work.
* On security issues, the auditors found that access to the data center was not effectively controlled. Personnel other than operations workers authorized to enter the area had access to the computer room, and operators had unrestricted access to some sensitive documents concerning sealed records.
* Backup data, software and documentation were not stored off-site. The re-creation of data and software in the event of a disaster would result in a significant cost to the county recorder’s office, the report said.
* In birth indexing, auditors found a high likelihood of error because too many staff members had computer access to sealed birth records.
* In computer use, the report found that many employees were leaving their workstations without shutting off their computers, sometimes with sensitive information on their screens. In addition, computer passwords were not promptly deleted or changed. In one instance, the auditors found that two outside contractors who no longer worked with the county still had valid passwords. The level of access granted to these individuals was such that they could use their old accounts to mask possible inappropriate activities, the auditors said.
Branch, for his part, said that he is glad to hear the recommendations made in the report and that, in fact, his department paid for the study. The suggestions, he said, will help make the department serve the public better.
“The study helped us see if we are doing everything necessary to protect the records. Is there anything else that we can add to make a better system?” Branch said. “I welcome that. We want to see that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. . . . I’m an elected department head. That’s my responsibility, to run this office.”
Officials in the county administrative office said that despite the criticisms, there are indications that the recorder’s office is improving its performance.
Bob Wilson, a manager in the county administrative office and a member of the steering committee that reviewed the study, said that many of the recommendations have already been implemented and thatproblems that were cited in other reports were not mentioned in the most recent study. Follow-up reports on other audits have shown that Branch’s office made improvements after he was issued a report card.
But, Wilson said, “there are certainly some problems with the recorder’s office. It’s what led up to this. Most audits find that security and internal controls need to be improved in shops with a lot of data processing.”
Some of Branch’s critics say this latest study is only more confirmation that Branch is lacking in management skills and improves his department only when he is forced to do so.
“He was proud of being a clerk and having worked his way through the ranks,” said Truman Legg, a senior systems analyst in the public defender’s office who used to work for Branch and also challenged him in the 1978 election. “He is a nice pipe-smoking man, but he doesn’t have the tools. He didn’t have the training.”
Roach, the former systems analyst whose charges sparked the audit, said he doubts that this latest report will do much to improve the recorder’s office.
“Truthfully, I don’t think this audit is worth the paper it’s printed on because they won’t do anything about it,” he said. “Some of the things written up in here were written up in the 1985 audit.”
In that study, a county report released in March, 1985, auditors delivered a scathing criticism of Branch’s department, charging that he resisted change, that his staff was rude to the public and that their negative attitude reflected the relationship between supervisors and the staff.
Branch and his supporters said many of the problems found by the latest study are to be expected in a department in transition from an office that used to handwrite legal records into dusty and bulky cloth-bound books to one that now is almost totally computerized.
“Many of the problems mentioned in this study were not a problem to us five years ago,” Branch said. “The technology is moving so rapidly. It’s very difficult to stay on top of it. Who knew 10 years ago what a (computer) virus was?”