Interview with The Godfather of e-Recording

Interview with Mark Monacelli, St. Louis County Public Records & Property Valuation Director

Extract: You’ve been referred to as the godfather of e-recording and described as a driving force in moving it forward when no one knew what it was. Why were you an early advocate?

Monacelli: MERS was a wake-up call for many of us in the industry. We recognized that we must begin a process to work better together and consider creating a new document recording business model that was more efficient. Technology was gaining a foothold in the industry, so the timing was right. I’m not sure where the godfather designation came from. However, I was blessed with a great deal of vision which allowed me to see how we could make e-recording a reality and what steps were required. I was also blessed with the gifts of leadership, public speaking skills and confidence to make a project of this size a success. This, and some good luck along the way, allowed me to lead a group of hard working, passionate people from throughout the country that believed we could be successful in creating the e-recording infrastructure and XML data standards.

Extract: You’re the Director of Public Records and Property Valuation which spans the assessor’s and recorder’s departments. Tell us about an average day on the job.

Monacelli: The majority of my time is spent in the Assessor’s Division. When I was appointed Director of this area, one of my challenges was creating a new business model. In St. Louis County, MN townships have the option to contract with the county for assessing services or they can hire an independent assessor. The “mixed assessment system” created a great deal of disharmony over the years. There were unsuccessful attempts to change the model in the past. Because of the degree of disharmony, even amongst our seven county commissioners, I thought the most practical way to address this issue was to ask the County Board to appoint a “Blue Ribbon” panel made up of 14 citizens. They did, and the Blue Ribbon Panel met for nine months and made a number of recommendations, including eliminating contract independent assessors. Currently, I spend the majority of my time implementing the panel’s recommendations.

Extract: How is your department utilizing GIS technology? What other new technologies do you foresee making an impact in local government?

Monacelli: We have a comprehensive, industry recognized, state of the art GIS system that includes recorded real estate documents and a web portal that is used for access. I can now access any information I need on my desktop via the portal. We also launched our Web Explorer that allows the public access to specific information using a hand held device. In addition, last Spring we did a fly-over of St. Louis County using high resolution Pictometry aerial photography. We can now view all four sides of a building and the imagery is so clear that I noticed I’m missing a shingle on my roof! As we move forward, we recognize hand held web applications will continue to be part of everyday lives so our technology projects are created with this in mind.

Extract: St. Louis County converted its paper-based Torrens registration system to a fully integrated electronic model along with creating a whole new interface to begin e-recording just last year. Why wasn’t St. Louis County an earlier adopter of e-Recording?

Monacelli: We started planning and building our recorder’s data base in the late 80’s; back then purchasing packaged recording software didn’t exist, or if it did, it had very limited functionality. We were very successful in creating the data base, imaging millions of documents, and making enhancements as needed.

The Automated Torrens System (ATS) was the last module to build. One-third of our transactions are Torrens in which we issue and guarantee the owner’s Certificate of Title. The paper-based Torrens system was very labor intensive and there was little value for us in accepting an electronic transaction if our Torrens system was paper-based. Researching and building the ATS was challenging because in the late 90’s there wasn’t an ATS in the U.S. that we could use as model, so we looked to Alberta, Canada that did have one. Time had gone by and before we could start building the ATS, we had to rebuild our database using the latest technology tools, including XML interface architecture.

Once the ATS build was completed and tested, we had to enter information from 50,000 paper Torrens certificates into the data base. We have numerous metes and bounds descriptions that are very lengthy and the data entry took extra time. Then, all data entered had to be verified for accuracy and quality - the entire data entry/verification process took several years.

There are other packaged software systems available that include an ATS; there are no others as integrated and comprehensive as ours. Aside from creating the ATS, there were other factors such as the vendor we hired to create the eRecording interface went thru restructuring in the middle of our project and the six month project ended up taking 1 1/2 years and integrating eRecording into the Torrens system has been very challenging. Once we began to accept electronic documents, I decided to rebuild and enhance our eRecording module using internal IT staff. We launched the new, rebuilt version February 18, 2014.

Extract: St. Louis County is the largest county east of the Mississippi with 6,742 square miles. Does its size present unique challenges for government services.

Monacelli: Yes, because of its size we have many different and diverse land applications that include complicated severed mineral interests. There is a dichotomy of beliefs and values between the north and south within the county. The Northern part of the county has a mining based economy and it seems every seven years, or so, someone pushes the idea of splitting the county in half. And, because of its size, I manage seven offices in four different locations.

Extract: Your department is entrusted with operating and maintaining the County’s National Register of Historic Sites, including two Courthouses in Virginia and Duluth. In your opinion, does Preservation ever get in the way of Progress?

Monacelli: Yes, it can. Duluth and St. Louis County are rich in history because of the early mining, shipping and forestry industries. At one time, Duluth had the largest population of wealthy Americans per capita than any other place in the United States. John D. Rockefeller expanded his wealth here by providing financial assistance to build the railroads. The railroads allowed the mining companies in the Northern part of the county to transport iron ore by rail to the ore docks on Lake Superior located in the Southern part of the county. Because of our history, we have numerous buildings listed on the National Register. If you remodel, etc. you must meet specific criteria and standards. A few years ago the County wanted to tear down our 85 year old, dilapidated, abandoned jail. A major debate ensued between the County and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. The Alliance won, the building was purchased by a private entity and still it stands vacant.

Extract: In 1998, as the Land Records Chair for the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks (NACRC) you helped create the Property Records Industry Joint Task Force (PRIJTF). This task force eventually became the organization PRIA (Property Records Industry Association). You became its first president in 2003 and you’re still an active member, serving on its Council of Advisors and as co-chair of the Property Records Education Partners (PREP). How have the goals and work of PRIA changed over the last 11 years. Why is it important for industry and government to come together as they do in the PRIA?

Monacelli: We, as a nation, don’t work together well. However, there are areas that we do and PRIA is one of them. Having said that, there are still too many recorders that don’t understand the role they play in the financial services industry. The entire cycle of purchasing a home, financing, closing and recording documents is all interrelated; I see education opportunity here and also a mechanism to increase membership. Along with creating standards and best practices, PRIA also serves as a forum for industry stakeholders to meet twice a year to network and exchange information. I realize things change over time as they have with PRIA. However, the basic concept of creating standards and best practices remains the same and an integral part of doing this is networking, creating new alliances and strengthening the ones you have. At the 2013 NACRC annual conference, I sensed friction between NACRC and PRIA. Because of the discord, NACRC wasn’t going to pay their 2014 PRIA dues. When I became aware of this, I put the two Presidents together at the 2013 PRIA annual conference and we worked out a one year agreement. The PRIJTF, and then PRIA, grew out of NACRC and it would not send a good industry message to lose their support. If a national association of recorders and PRIA can’t work together, how can we expect the industry to?

Extract: Duluth is an iconic city on Lake Superior. Most of us think of big ships and very cold weather – and maybe the fact that Bob Dylan was born there -when we hear Duluth. What do you enjoy about living in the area?

Monacelli: People that visit Duluth and St. Louis County from other parts of the country consistently tell me the beauty of Northern Minnesota is breathtaking, even in winter. I grew up in the woods and I’m truly at peace fishing on a beautiful Northern Minnesota lake or walking in the woods on a fall day. Nature is at my back door and I know how to live and survive in it. I sometimes tell others that you haven’t lived life to its fullest until you are walking alone in the woods on a calm day, with beautiful autumn colors all around, and you hear a pack of Timberwolves howling a few hundred yards away.

About the Author: Greg Gies

For 20 years in the software industry, Greg Gies has been helping businesses, government agencies and healthcare organizations achieve their goals and carry out their missions by making better use of information and automating business processes. Greg has held positions in sales, product management and marketing and holds an MBA from Babson College.