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Johnson reflects on 36 years as county recorder

  

columbiatribune.com | January 4, 2015

By Jodie Jackson Jr.

In one of her final acts as Boone County’s recorder of deeds on Monday, Bettie Johnson signed a marriage license application for Anne Schauwecker and Kramer McCluckie — then personally paid the $51 application fee.

Johnson’s friend and fellow officeholder Assessor Tom Schauwecker — the father of the bride — said he was touched but not surprised.

“She’s just a dear, dear friend,” he said. “She is an extraordinary person.”

Johnson, the county’s recorder for 36 years, did not run for a 10th term in office. She announced her retirement in February, leading to what she called “a really long termination process” that was impossible to prepare for. But the friendships that she created with other elected officials and the public stand out, Johnson said, and paying the marriage license application fee for her friend’s daughter was a symbol of those long friendships.

She has worked with Schauwecker since he began serving in 1989, she was elected two years after Kay Murray was elected as county treasurer, and county Clerk Wendy Noren was elected two years after Johnson took office as recorder. Murray retired in 2010 after 33 years on the job, and Noren was elected in November to her ninth term — which she said will be her last.

“If you don’t have that kind of friendship, then you have the controversy and the friction that you sometimes see” in other counties, Johnson said, referring to the bond among county officeholders and her payment of the marriage license fee. “That was really kind of a special opportunity.”

Johnson, a Democrat, uses the term “special opportunity” to describe several aspects of her long tenure. From her first primary election in 1976 to the general election in 2010, Johnson never had a challenger on any ballot. She’s among the first to point to the irony of seeing three candidates — all longtime employees in her office — stump for votes to replace her.

Ultimately, Democrat Nora Dietzel narrowly edged fellow deputy recorder Lisa Ballenger, a Republican, in the November election after winning by a decisive margin over deputy recorder Lois Miller in the primary. When Johnson announced her retirement, she said several staff members in her office were qualified to be recorders in any county, and she expected one or more might run for her job. She did not endorse any of the three who ran.

“I think Nora will do an outstanding job,” Johnson said, adding that Miller and Ballenger “have shown a really gracious approach to making this work. The whole office really stepped to the plate in handling this situation.”

The election cycles also helped expose the importance of the recorder’s office, Johnson said. Although she has often described the recorder’s office as “low-profile” among county offices, she said when the public does interact with the recorder, it’s usually “a really significant time in their life.” Those interactions include, among other things, veterans seeking military discharge papers to claim rights to benefits, consumers who purchased a home or paid off a mortgage, couples seeking marriage licenses and people in other “unique times in their lives.”

Johnson and the office gained a headline-type profile in June 2011 when she returned from a national conference with information that made her wonder about possible “robo-signers” on mortgage documents. She directed staff to check five years of documents, which revealed 68 forged documents as part of a nationwide scandal of robo-signing, a practice where employees of the mortgage services firm DocX were illegally signing documents to speed up the foreclosure process for lender clients.

What made the Boone County case unique was that Johnson took her findings to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who, along with Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight, filed criminal charges. Until then, only civil cases had been made against the company.

The head of the company, Lorraine Brown, was eventually convicted in Boone County and by a federal court. She was sentenced to five years in federal prison in June 2013.

“She wasn’t afraid to take on the robo-signers,” Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said of Johnson. “We were blessed to have her so long.”

Other county officials also pointed to the robo-signer conviction as a hallmark of Johnson’s tenure.

“I’m not sure that everyone completely understood the impact of it,” Johnson said. “This was going on all around the United States, and it was the first criminal investigation. In that perspective, it really was one of the big things that happened in the county while I was there.”

Other highlights of Johnson’s time in office include:

  • Adapting to new and changing technology, helping pay for and establish the county’s website and creating an electronic service to notify property owners if other documents are recorded in their names.
    Working alongside Murray as appointees of then-Gov. Mel Carnahan to a committee that established the County Employees Retirement Fund in 1994.
  • Working through the state recorder’s association to pass legislation that guaranteed privacy for Social Security numbers on military documents, marriage licenses and other documents that are public records.
  • Serving as president of a national association and on a national committee to establish standards for electronic recording of documents.
  • Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill said the importance of the “institutional knowledge” of long-serving officeholders can’t be overstated. He has relied on Johnson, Noren, Schauwecker and Collector Pat Lensmeyer, who is stepping down after almost 20 years in office, to help him learn the best ways to govern.

“Some of our best work has been where we had to ‘hammer it out,’” Johnson said. “But everybody steps to the plate for what needs to be done. That’s always been a hallmark of the group of officials I have worked with.”

 

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