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The Daily Tar Heel

Orange County Register of Deeds race heating up

Depending on who the candidate voters choose May 6 , the Register of Deeds office could gain a new staff of Spanish-speaking employees or even begin to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

The candidates include incumbent Deborah Brooks and two challengers: Mark Chilton, former mayor of Carrboro and a longtime local real estate lawyer, and Sara Stephens , a former Register of Deeds office employee.

Under state law, Chilton would not be able to practice law if he’s elected to the register position .

Chuck Szypszak, a UNC professor of public law and government, said the candidates each meet the criteria for a usual Register of Deeds. He said it is a very technical position and requires knowledge of real estate.

“Registers typically campaign on how responsive they’ll be to the people, how careful they’ll be with records, and their level of experience,” he said. “It’s commonly someone who’s involved in the local community.”

Chilton and Stephens both plan to hire new Spanish-speaking staff at the Register of Deeds office and translate the office’s website into Spanish to serve the county’s growing Hispanic population.

“When you come in and you don’t speak English, and we say we don’t accept cash and you don’t understand, that can become a really large problem and a time waster,” Stephens said.

Natalia Lenis , office coordinator at El Centro Hispano in Carrboro, said members of the Hispanic community often have problems accessing public records in general because they have to bring their own interpreter or an English-speaking family member.

“People feel more comfortable sometimes just coming (to El Centro) to fill out the forms,” she said.

Duties of the Register of Deeds include signing marriage licenses, signing death certificates, and preserving public land records and other documents.

Chilton said he would sign same-sex marriage licenses because he believes Amendment One , the North Carolina statute prohibiting same-sex marriage, is federally unconstitutional.

“Upholding the federal constitution is the job of the Register of Deeds even when it contradicts the North Carolina state constitution,” he said. “The state constitution says you can’t run for office if you’re an atheist. We all know that’s unconstitutional, but it’s just never been to court .”

Szypszak said this is the first time he’s heard of a candidate for Register of Deeds campaigning on this platform.

“Theoretically, if a public official believes that the state constitution is unconstitutional, they would be bound to follow the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “But if (Chilton) issues those licenses and people get married, they’d have no way of knowing if the federal government would consider those licenses valid.”

Stephens said she would not sign same-sex licenses because it would violate her constitutional oath.

“There are things we can do to provide a friendly and welcoming environment to same-sex couples,” she said.

Stephens said same-sex couples traveling to get married sometimes must wait a period of time in the other state before getting married , but the Register can waive that.

“Not every county does this, but (as register) you should keep your finger on the pulse of your community,” Stephens said. “I would accept a license application from a couple as a sign of solidarity, saying we’ll hold this until our friends in Raleigh change the laws.”

Stephens also mentioned plans to put Orange County on an electronic birth registration system, so birth certificates could be accessed more easily. Both Stephens and Chilton said they planned to redesign the Register of Deeds website to be more user-friendly.

Brooks has 38 years of experience in the office of the Register of Deeds and has served for four years as register, during which she has worked on a long-term project scanning old, delicate county records for placement online.

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She said she had seen no significant problems with access to records or the ease-of-use of the Register of Deeds website.

“Problems arise when people do not read the help section or do not contact the office for assistance,” she said.