A long long time ago when I was sitting around the campfire with my
hippie friends (or whatever they were in the Apple II days when we were
all changing the world) we discussed putting government records on-line,
so “the rest of us” could get some kind of grasp of what “they” were doing
to us. Piece by piece this has become a reality. This hit me
in the face a few days ago for a totally unexpected reason; a situation
where, briefly, I was thinking I might have to move in a hurry.
Anyone who is much into robots (as I am) has, from time to time, haunted
government surplus depots, or in some cases, DRMO, which the agency for
disposing of DOD surplus. DRMO, or more generally, GSA, has a Website,
which I haven’t looked at in years, but what I remember about it was that
what was listed there was the junkiest of the junk. The Website evidently
listed what hadn’t been bought at local auction: totaled Security Police
cars, busted up furniture, 5 gallon bottled water jars, and Ground Support
Equipment that was so rusted you couldn’t roll it over a cliff. What
I really could have used was one of those F16 jet engines, which I needed
for my rebuilt Isuzu.
One of the more recent and more useful databases has been the BCAD
This one has been around for two or three years, and has in the last year
had GIS (Geographical
so that you can home in on your family plot, and find out who actually
owns the neighborhood eyesores. You can also find out if they’ve
paid their property taxes, which requires a bit of finagling, but not much.
For some reason I was looking up small towns along the flood path last
year, and discovered that all, or at least all the “major” counties in
Texas have their property records online. I’m guessing there is a
state law mandating this, since there seems to be a fair amount of commonality
in these systems, although they clearly have different developers.
The Website URLs are all over the map, there are .coms, and .orgs and .govs
and even .nets.
So why was I rooting around in public records Websites? Quoting Edmund
Hillary: “Because it’s there”.
At one point I was looking up the mailing addresses of our honorable
County Commissioners, as well as City Councilpersons and certain officers
on the boards of SAWS and CPS. One of my Dumpster dives had yielded
gift certificates for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, and these had to be distributed
to appropriate parties. At any rate, I discovered a trove of boards
you never heard of, the Child Advocacy Board and the Southtown Redevelopment
Board and so many other boards I could build a dance hall. The number
of people serving on these exceeds a thousand, although not by much.
In my supposed rush out the door, I was interested in foreclosures,
since this might yield some sort of real estate bargain. This lead
me eventually to the County Clerk’s Website, which lists more stuff than
you can stand: State Tax Liens, Marriage Licenses, Abandonments, Satisfactions,
Assumed Names, etc. I have no idea what all this stuff is, but there
is a lot of records in some of them. A lot.
The County Clerk’s Office has a link to the Texas Department of Transportation.
If they have all this stuff that’s nobody’s business in the county, it’s
probably true for the state. Not even.
In attempting to look up my own license plate number, I find that there
are laws about this stuff. In short, don’t even think it. You
will not be looking up car plates on a State of Texas Website. It
might be out there somewhere, but not in TXDOT.
In our college American Literature course, Henry Thoreau posits in his
essays that many of his neighbors live lives of quiet desperation.
Now I have the proof. There is nothing like visiting the country
courthouse, either literally or virtually, to wallow in pathos.
Did I find any bargains? Doubtful. Problem is, it might
be staring me in the face without me knowing what I’m looking at.
The more general impression I’m left, as I’m sifting through some of this
stuff, is a bunch of overworked small business owners that let various
things fall through the cracks. Things like their monthly sales tax
deposits, franchise taxes, etc.
We can’t leave out the City of San Antonio, whose impounded vehicle
auction is a weekly affair. Does anyone get a Mercedes for $1?
Possible, but only if it’s wrecked and burned.
Many of the scanned records are simply snapshots of hand-written records,
and a few of them contain stuff that should obviously not be publicly visible.
One of them had a hand-written Texas Drivers License number next to the
signature. This should have been taped over or otherwise obscured
before the document was scanned. This suggests that if I looked long
enough and in the right places, I might find social security numbers.
One would hope the people recording all this stuff have a sense of due
diligence, but this expectation is unrealistic. A better idea might
be for each of us to check our records, and see if anything untoward is
in our subset of the corporeal entirety. There might actually be a good
reason for you to look yourself up.