Conversation on consolidation of registrars finds opposition in Fryeburg

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PARIS — A bill to study possible changes to Oxford County’s current system of two registries of deeds raised ire from attorneys and municipal officers in the Fryeburg at Tuesday’s meeting of the county commission.

The bill was pulled Tuesday and is no longer under discussion in Augusta.

In a December conversation with legislators, commissioners floated the idea of having a single register for the registries in Fryeburg and Paris. State statute keeps the two registries open, and county commissioners suggested having a single register running both.

Commissioners had discussed the possibility of merging the registries in the past, but dropped it.

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In December, they heard that Register of Deeds Jean Watson in the Fryeburg office wasn’t planning on retiring.

On Tuesday, Watson attended the commissioners’ meeting along with Fryeburg Town Manager Sharon Jackson and former state Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg.

She said what they heard isn’t true. “I’d like to retire,” Watson told the commission, but it isn’t an option and she plans to run for the position again in two years.

Watson, Jackson and Hastings came to urge the commission to ask that a bill exploring options for the two registries be pulled. The bill would have created a committee comprised of the three Oxford County commissioners, and the two state senators and four state representatives whose legislative districts include the eight towns covered by the Registry of Deeds office in Fryeburg.

Jackson and Hastings said that any exploratory committee should be done at the municipal level, not at the Legislature.

Hastings, an attorney, said legislative committees are costly.

Commissioners learned after the discussion that the bill had been withdrawn Tuesday morning after a phone call from Commissioner Caldwell Jackson of Oxford, who couldn’t attend the meeting because he was working in Augusta.

The bill would have formed a committee to make a recommendation to the Legislature on whether to change the organization of the two registries.

On Tuesday, commissioners told the three that they had no plans to request a withdrawal of the bill.

Commissioner Steven Merrill of Norway said he is “in charge of the county’s dollars,” and it’s his responsibility to find ways to save taxpayer money.

Commissioners were implored not to close the registry in Fryeburg.

Watson told commissioners that a lot of her customers are older and don’t have computers at home, so online access to the registry wouldn’t help them. “If you guys could just watch the registry operate, you might understand how it works a little better,” she said.

Hastings said he uses the registry often. He brought letters from other attorneys who he said agreed with him that the registry was necessary. He said legislators had considered whether the state could have fewer courthouses to save money. “I spent eight years in the Legislature trying to keep rural courthouses open,” he said. Eventually, he said, others agreed that local access to justice was important to preserve. He said the same idea held with the Registry of Deeds.

Jackson said the town office staff use the registry at least once per week, and that closing it would require expensive trips to Paris, about 30 miles away.

Commission Chairman David Duguay said no one was considering closing the western registry, but only looking to see if one person could run both offices. He said it could offer better services and synergy between the two offices.

“I just think it’s been blown out of proportion quite a bit,” Duguay said.

Watson said eliminating her position would put her out of a job, although commissioners said there would be a second clerk position in Fryeburg or even a deputy register, although neither would be elected positions.

“I guess I have two more years to work on my retirement, huh?” Watson said. She said she’d spent 34 years as Register of Deeds.

Watson said she learned not from commissioners but a third party about the decision to eliminate per position and the idea that she wasn’t running for the position again. She said she was insulted that the commission didn’t contact her first.

Jackson said she was also surprised to read about the commission’s plans before they told her directly.

Duguay said it was a matter of contacting legislators first or the Fryeburg office. Contacting municipalities may have left legislators “blindsided,” Duguay said.

treaves@sunjournal.com

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