Volume of Work at Prothonotary Office Continues to Rise
By Rick Hiduk
Since William Penn appointed the first prothonotary for the colony of Pennsylvania in 1683, the official record keeper for the court of common pleas and other aspects of civil legislation and his or her office has evolved into a status and an importance that is unique to the form of government in Pennsylvania and some of the other former British colonies. In recent years, demands on the prothonotary office have moved beyond those of the public checking to see what details have been filed about them and their neighbors concerning family court actions involving marriage licenses, divorce proceedings, custody battles, and child support payment issues.
The needs of those filing paperwork for the gas industry have put an enormous burden on the prothonotary office, which also records property liens and judgments on property issues that are key to drafting accurate contracts involving mineral rights and agreements between landowners and gas companies. On Nov. 17, Bradford County prothonotary Sally Vaughn brought to the regular county commissioners’ meeting a stack of approximately 30 “condemnations” filed by a local gas company just that morning that she could barely grip with two hands.
That pile alone, she noted, which primarily involved the unsuccessful initial efforts of a New York state-based gas company to acquire land-use rights to run gathering lines through Bradford County properties, would easily translate to about two-weeks work for a single employee. The truth is that the tasks involved will be spread among the employees in Vaughn’s office, as are countless files just like it on a regular basis. Vaughn, for instance, said that she would be opening a separate escrow account for each of the condemnations later that day, accounts for which the prothonotary office must then maintain balances on until the separate issues are resolved.
Vaughn admitted that the large number of condemnations that she had received that morning was a bit of an extreme, but it also provided tangible evidence as to how busy a day in her office, like others at the Bradford County Courthouse, can be in this new era. A fulltime employee is needed in the front of the office almost continuously just to assist title searchers with computers and other machinery that often incur mechanical problems.
“I don’t think that people realize how the gas industry affects our office,” she said to the commissioners, who expressed an interest in the particulars of a condemnation, which is a rather ordinary document and not as grave as the word may imply. Vaughn read some basic details from the condemnation at the top of the pile, noting that the information is public, but added that the drama behind the reports is not of concern to those working in her office. It’s simply a case of filing high volumes of legal documents accurately and making sure that the public can access the information.
It was the sudden increase in hands-on usage of records stored in the prothonotary office that prompted Vaughn to begin a massive effort to make more durable copies of deeds that were as much as 170 years old so that they are not literally torn to shreds by those who need to use them. Even those county documents that were initially preserved are deteriorating quickly, so the prothonotary office has proceeded under the leadership of presiding judge Jeffrey Smith to employ a number of new technologies to proactively preserve and duplicate records as the budget paired with secured preservation-oriented grants will allow.
Vaughn is assisted in the prothonotary office by nine full-time and two part-time employees and an occaisional volunteer or intern.