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County weighs limiting web access to public records

http://66.225.205.104/LM20100217a.mp3

Mecklenburg County is considering doing away with an online tool that allows people to search property records and the taxes associated with them by owners' names. Say you want to find out if certain companies or public officials are behind on their tax bills. That's very easy to do in many counties throughout the state. All you need to know is the owner's name and up pops the address along with other information. Mecklenburg County's system gets about 66,000 unique hits a month from realtors, developers, curious citizens, and, yes, journalists. Jeff Taylor is among that group. He writes the MeckDeck blog for the John Locke Foundation. "It seems to me it's a basic transparency and good government function at a very, very, very, very granular level," says Taylor. "You understand what everyone owns and you can keep track of it." But several local law enforcement officials say the system is too easy for violent criminals to find out where police officers, prosecutors and federal agents live. Mecklenburg District Attorney Peter Gilchrist, CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe, and federal officials sent a letter to county commissioners asking them to allow law enforcement employees to remove their names from the database. But Kurt Olmsted whose department operates the property search tool says it's not that easy. He says North Carolina law doesn't allow the county to selectively remove names. The county would have to take down the whole name search function. People could still search by address or parcel number, or go the old-fashioned route with a trip to the courthouse. Mecklenburg County is asking the public to weigh in on the matter through an online survey.