Three's company for Boone County recorder's office despite election fever

Thursday, July 31, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:38 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 31, 2014

COLUMBIA — With three employees running to replace their boss, you might think things are heated in the Boone County Recorder of Deeds Office. You wouldn't be the only one.

"A lot of people just can't believe we're getting along," said Nora Dietzel, who is running against Lois Miller for the Democratic nomination.

The runoff

Two candidates, Nora Dietzel and Lois Miller, are vying for the Democratic place on the November ballot to serve as Boone County recorder of deeds. The Republican candidate, Lisa Ballenger, is unopposed.

Nora Dietzel: Dietzel, 49, has worked in the recorder's office for 17 years, 10 as lead deputy. She began a career in banking after attending MU, then joined the recorder's office in 1996. She was responsible for converting the manual accounting setup to a digital system. She and her husband have two grown sons.

Lois Miller: Miller, 61, has been with the office for 25 years, since the records were kept by hand. A lifelong resident of Boone County, she and her husband have three children and eight grandchildren.

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"They ask, 'How's it going in there?' in a whisper, like they're afraid for us or afraid to step foot in the office."

Miller said it's one of the two most common questions she's been asked on the campaign trail. The other question: So, what does a recorder do, anyway?

The office is responsible for filing and maintaining marriage licenses, real estate documents, veterans' discharge records and tax liens. Deeds of trust, easements, surveys, plats, wills, road rights of way, patents and more can provide a historical perspective on county transactions.

Bettie Johnson has run the Boone County recorder's office since 1979. After 35 years of service, she announced her retirement in February, and all three candidates campaigning to replace her have served in the office for at least 15 years.

Dietzel has 17 years of service, and Miller has more than 25 years in the recorder's office. The third, Lisa Ballenger, is running unopposed as a Republican. She has worked in the office for 23 years.

Battling misconceptions about the office is nothing new to any of the candidates. When a forum moderator asked them to "make the office more exciting," Dietzel responded by saying, "Exciting is in the eye of the beholder."

"If someone comes in for their marriage license, they are excited, and we're excited right along with them," she said.

Ballenger has had a similar experience; although, without a primary opponent, her campaign hasn't kicked into gear yet.

"People really don't know what we do, so a lot of it is educating the people of Boone County about what exactly it is we do," she said.

"Anything that's going to be important in your life starts in our office."

A long tenured office

The recorder's office has a history of employee retention. Before Johnson, Betty Saunders served for 27 years, from 1952 to 1979.

Before that, the duties were handled by court clerks. That means whoever wins the election in November will become only the third recorder of deeds in the office's 62-year history.

"And not one of us is named Betty," Miller joked.

Johnson has served as Boone County recorder through six presidents and eight governors and has helped the office transition into the digital age. When Miller applied for a deputy job in 1989, she had to take a test with a fountain pen because good penmanship was necessary when everything was recorded and indexed by hand.

Thanks to Johnson, processes that used to take hours or even days can now be done in minutes, often electronically. People don't even have to visit the office in person.

Ballenger said she started working as a part-time temporary worker who was transitioning from a year and a half as a stay-at-home mom. More than two decades later, and now working full time, she hopes to run the office.

Dietzel has served the past 10 of her 17 years as Johnson's lead deputy. She said the fact that she attained that position without having seniority is something she's proud of.

Success and importance

No matter which candidate wins the election, one thing is clear: She will have big shoes to fill.

In 2012, Johnson was an instrumental part of the team that unearthed widespread use of robo-signing on real estate documents in Missouri. Attorney General Chris Koster sued the company responsible, DocX, and a grand jury handed up 136 counts of forgery.

The company's founder, Lorraine Brown, later pleaded guilty to forgery and was sentenced to five years in federal prison. It was one of only a few examples of verifiable criminal activity during the foreclosure crisis, especially involving a company executive.

Johnson also has built a reputation as a respected authority, and each of the candidates said that will be important to maintain.

"We've been teased that we're the state recorder's office, when really there isn't one," Ballenger said. "Just about every day there's another county calling our office asking how to apply state statutes or what we'd do in a particular situation."

Another nickname the Boone County office has picked up is "the recorder training academy," because of longevity in the office and how much the staff has learned under Johnson.

Instead of assigning individual deputies certain tasks, Johnson has cross-trained everyone in the office so each employee can handle almost any situation that arises. Dietzel said other counties know this and will ask the deputies for advice if Johnson isn't available.

"We are known nationwide for the standards we set in our recording process, and we are often called upon to be a resource to other recorders," Dietzel said.

Ballenger said people who visit the Boone County office from other counties are amazed at how efficient and responsive the staff is at assisting customers. She's been told that walking into the Boone County office is like taking a leap forward in time.

That's good to know for Boone County residents, especially because most people don't know about the office until they need a document.

"People come to the recorder’s office at some of the most important times in their lives," said Dietzel, referring to marriage licenses and real estate transactions.

"These are the times people realize how important those records are, and getting easy access to them is a critical matter. They may not have known who the recorder was or what they did up until that point, but at that moment, it better be there."

Life in the office

Dietzel said people seem to be curious how three candidates can work together in one office while campaigning against one another.

"In some way, shape or form, that’s the question we get asked the most: ‘How on Earth do you function in that office?'" she said with a laugh.

"They’re trying to make a story about this, and it really is a boring story, I’m afraid, because things are going just fine. It’s business as usual. We still laugh and joke together, and it hasn’t been overly tense."

Miller said the candidates share tales about life on the campaign trail. Although that part of the election process is taxing, she said, it has also brought all of the candidates closer together.

"We can joke about who slammed the door in your face last night as we go door to door," she said. "We all have a good rapport with each other. We were friends before this came about, and I have the outlook that we'll still be friends after this is all over."

Ballenger said the candidates have handled the situation with relative ease and professionalism. She said she thinks it affects other people more than the candidates themselves.

"It's harder for people who know all three of us when they come into the office and know that we're running," Ballenger said.

Between public forums and working full time, Ballenger said, the candidates have been spending more time with one another than with their husbands, children and grandchildren.

"When you're in a full-time position, you're with your co-workers more than you are your family," she said. "So you better get along with those people."

Dietzel said the candidates are "like family to each other" and that isn't just a campaign ploy. After all, Ballenger first met her husband at Miller's wedding.

"When you're in our office, you spend every minute with people who are not your family. But we become a family," Miller said. "At the end of the day, one of us is going to get the job. If you can't run the office, wouldn't it be best if one of your friends was running the office?"

Election draws near

Although the candidates run on a partisan ticket, they don't run on issues or policies. Instead, they run on their experience and their vision for the future of the office.

All are running for an elected governmental position for the first time. All are married women with children and grandchildren. All have worked in the recorder's office for at least 15 years and lived in Boone County for many more.

Unless something unforeseen happens, all three will still have jobs Nov. 6 no matter who wins. But that doesn't mean the election has no effect on those running.

When someone is endorsed or editorials come out opposed to a candidate, there are "little moments of feelings" in the office, Dietzel said, and each mentioned how hard it was to campaign against one another.

"There's bound to be some rough spots, and I'm not looking forward to the day after the election, no matter the outcome," Dietzel said.

"It's going to be someone not getting what they want and someone else having to hold back how grateful they are for the opportunity they've been given, because it's going to hurt someone else. That's going to be a delicate situation."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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Richard Saunders July 31, 2014 | 11:09 a.m.

I've always found it strange that County Recorder is a political office, as evidenced by the strangeness of these three coworkers having to publicly campaign against each other. Then again, I find all politics to be strange, as there's no moral justification ever for mob rule.

Given that all of them have plenty of experience to handle the job, to me it should come down to seniority, ability to be a coherent supervisor, and how long they plan to remain in the workforce. The idea that this is best determined by a partisan popularity contest is beyond me.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 31, 2014 | 12:50 p.m.

@ Richard:

Could be that politics is something like a saying some men have about women: if you can't achieve both, love is more important than understanding.

A problem with politics could arise when we can't achieve either of those two conditions. :)

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