Hasn't there been enough controversy over Allegheny County's property assessment system? The one part of the system that has worked well throughout more than six years of alienating, on-again-off-again reassessment has been the county's property Web site.
Anyone with access to a computer can see the values assigned to any property in the county, based on owner names, addresses, and the arcane parcel numbers that otherwise exist only in large dusty volumes in the Recorder of Deeds office. This has been a valuable resource to citizens trying to ascertain the fairness of the system, and it has been a very popular feature.
Yet Chief Executive Dan Onorato, in an effort to solve a problem that doesn't seem to exist, has proposed eliminating the ability to look up property records by using the owner's name. He has asked County Council to make a change in law.
Numerous groups and individuals have asked to have their names removed, ostensibly out of fear that someone with nefarious intentions will take advantage of the site to hunt down a police officer, teacher or crime victim. Mr. Onorato is responding to these requests, not to any actual misdeeds, and says he wants to make sure everyone is treated equally on the Web site. Two years ago, he succumbed to fear and removed the names of more than 100 judges at the request of Chief U.S. District Court Judge Donetta Ambrose. This was done despite what appears to be the plain wording of an ordinance passed by County Council in 2003 requiring site searches to be done by name or address. Now, he wants to restore the information about judges' residences but take away the ability to search by name for everyone. Even if council decides to keep the search function, Mr. Onorato says the judges' information will be restored.
But restricting the search function closes a door to public records, and the most easily accessible door at that.
For example, suppose a citizen suspects that county or city officials are getting an unfair break on their assessments. Voters may not know where those officials live, but they can check as long as they can spell the names. It's true the records would remain searchable by name, but that would have to be done in person, Downtown. That's impractical and inconvenient, and it will add a new layer of suspicion to an already suspect process.
We're even more concerned that Mr. Onorato would propose this change now, just when he is about to assume responsibility for other important records. The antiquated, elected offices of clerk of courts, prothonotary and register of wills will expire in January, and county Manager Jim Flynn will appoint a director of court records to assume those functions. This is a change that the Post-Gazette and voters favor, one that will elevate professionalism and reduce political influence. It should not, however, reduce access.
If Mr. Onorato already is trying to restrict access to the county's property Web site, we can't help but worry about what changes he might make, or be urged to make, once he assumes authority for the court records.
County Council members will get their first look at Mr. Onorato's proposal at their meeting tonight. We suggest they toss it into the trash can.