By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Government, by law, is one of the biggest packrats around, even local government.
Locally, look no further than Lee County and the city of Tupelo.
Lee County Circuit Clerk Joyce Loftin admits one of her office’s biggest responsibilities involves collecting and saving an ever-growing supply of documents and other materials for a long time – sometimes forever.
She’s like a tour guide on the Lee County Justice Center’s three floors, showing off a voluminous collection maintained by county employees. She walks into rooms full of shelves filled with bound volumes and closets stacked high with unused ballots from an election two years ago.
Mississippi cities, schools, counties, courts, community colleges, libraries and airports are bound by state law to keep dozens of documents and other materials for time periods set by state law.
An evidence room maintained by Lee County’s circuit clerk’s office keeps a shovel, guns thought to be murder weapons and other evidence for pending cases, along with stacks of unresolved civil and criminal case files, some dating back 20 years. Loftin and her staff protect and preserve the information.
“We do clean it out from time-to-time,” Loftin said. “But we can’t destroy anything.”
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History keeps strict requirements of most local materials, except for court court records, which fall under jurisdiction of the state Supreme Court.
To give an idea of strict guidelines, court reporters with the District 1 Circuit Court spent more than three months trying to get permission to destroy cassette tapes from 1994-2006 used to help compile official court transcripts. Before the tapes could be destroyed, the Circuit Court employees had to apply for permission from the Department of Archives and History and then get approval from each Board of Supervisors in the court district’s seven counties.
“This is just a housekeeping item we do about once every 10 years,” said Susan Winters, staff attorney for District 1 Circuit Court.
Marriage filings to murder weapons
From marriage applications to murder weapons to a stack of boxes with a strong smell of marijuana, local government clerks and others responsible for collecting and maintaining dozens and dozens of different types of documents and materials keep gathering more each week.
“The general public doesn’t realize it, but so much of my job involves maintaining records,” said Kim Hanna, Tupelo’s city clerk.
Like Lee County, Tupelo’s records collection continues to bulge. State law allows the city to destroy some items after period of years, but contracts, executive correspondence and many other documents must be maintained forever.
Inside Tupelo’s City Hall, faded yellow sheets from the city’s first minute book document a special called meeting on April 2, 1877, to create a two-person committee to build 60 hitching posts.
While Hanna has legal responsibility for maintaining many of the city’s records and materials, their sheer volume has led to Mike Underwood, operations manager for Tupelo Public Works, to find additional locations for the city’s ever-expanding records collection.
Standing in a city-owned storage facility, Underwood walks past wooden pallets of boxes filled with personnel records, planning department files, city court records and other materials. Just a few steps away, “Destroy May 3, 2013” is written on a tall pile of boxes.
“We destroyed a good deal of documents a few years ago,” said Underwood, who began helping the city with document storage in the late 1980s.
With innovations in technology, the Department of Archives and History has established guidelines for municipalities and counties to retain documents digitally. Julia Marks Young, director of the archives and records services division at MDAH, said most local governments throughout the state either have not begun using digital archiving or are in early stages.
Locally, Lee County Chancery Clerk Bill Benson has kept digital records of county land deeds since 2000 and started keeping electronic records of court records four years ago. With his office accumulating 100 books of land records each year, he ran out of space.
“When you have as many volumes of as we do, the paper gets torn up, and you’ve got to rebind,” Benson said. “Just the cost of storage was tremendous, and that’s not even talking about the room to keep them.”
He hopes to begin next year digitizing older records.
Methods currently used by city of Tupelo to store electronic records do not meet state standards, so the city must continue to keep paper documents.
Back at the Lee County Circuit Clerk’s office, Loftin opened a bound volume to show the first marriage application filed since the formation of Lee County government in 1867.
Sitting at a nearby table, Vicksburg native Joe Givhan, 52, now an Iowa resident, sits near his laptop and combs through old records. He has traced his family history through north Mississippi using available records and family memories. Flipping pages and documenting his finds, Givhans didn’t even let thoughts of lunch distract him.
“When you’re searching for something and find it,” he said, “it can get really emotional.”