Editor’s note: Early on in her 18- year career as Dane County Register-of-Deeds, Jane Licht was instrumental in the establishment of the Wisconsin Land Information Program. Over the years, Jane has been a leader in the WI Register of Deeds Association and the WI Land Information Association. At the end of December 2006, she retired from the Register of Deeds office. Ted Koch recently caught up with Jane, and asked her reflect back on her career.
Jane, you are completing a long and illustrious career as the Dane County Register-of-Deeds. How did all this come about?
As a result of the 1980 census, a new supervisory district was created that included the Village of McFarland and the Town of Dunn. I had been active in both communities so I ran for the County Board, was elected, and began serving in the spring of 1982. I was appointed to the Agriculture, Environment and Land Records Committee. The Land Conservation Department was cooperating with Professor Ben Niemann from UW-Madison in the Westport Project to modernize land records. When the Dane County Land Information Project began, all of the supervisors on the committee were invited to attend Ben’s seminar, but I was the only one who did.
I was soon hooked on the new field of geographic information systems. Now I had a reason to go back to the University and earn my master’s degree. Ben became my major professor, and I was one of his little army of research assistants working in the bowels of Steenbock Library. At one point I was teaching 4 and 5 year olds part time, supervising a busy household (our family of four), attending county board meetings at night, classes by day, and was constantly sleep-deprived. But it was an exciting time to be learning, working, and serving in Dane County.
As I served on the Agriculture, Zoning and Land Conservation Committee, it was obvious to me that the current register of deeds was struggling. In the spring of 1988, a young Wisconsin State Journal reporter did an in-depth story on the register of deeds and could find no one willing to say anything complimentary about her. Friends involved in the land records modernization movement encouraged me to run against her, so I did. The two of us faced off in the Democratic primary, and I won 70% of the vote.
Prior to becoming register of deeds, I was a charter member of the Wisconsin Land Information Association, and served on the Legislative Committee. I contacted then Representative Bob Welch, a surveyor and WLIA member, and my own Representative, Joe Wineke, and they agreed to sponsor our legislation to establish a Wisconsin Land Information Program based upon the Wisconsin Land Information Committee’s Report to Governor Earl. By that time, Governor Thompson had been elected, but we found a true ally in his DOA Secretary, James Klauser.
Thanks to the hard work of countless WLIA members and other professionals, and to the savvy work of Bob and Joe, the legislation was adopted in 1989. Then we came back with the funding proposal that was adopted in 1990. I had to do a lot of convincing of my fellow members of the Wisconsin Register of Deeds Association (WRDA) who were not excited about having to enforce significantly higher recording fees with no guarantee that any of the funds would help modernize their offices. (Now the WRDA is solidly behind the program.)
How has the Register of Deeds position changed over the years? What have been your biggest challenges, and proudest accomplishments?
New technology has been used to improve productivity, effectiveness and access to information. As technology evolves, there is a learning curve for staff, and vendors, in cleaning up system errors. The registers have had to become computer and systems savvy as well as better advocates for the office functions and our customers.
When I first came into the office, the oldest records were in very poor shape. The ink was fading, the pages brittle and flaking away and thus, priceless information was being lost – and the scary part is that there was NO backup. With the support of the county board and county executive, I began a program to microfilm all of the old paper documents and paper indexes. I hired a microfilm technician and we got this huge project down in-house, on budget and on time.
Then in 1992, I began researching optical imaging systems. My LIO Committee supported my proposal to implement a new indexing and imaging system because they knew that creating the parcel layer would take several years of intensive work whereas my new system would bring immediate benefits to the real estate community. So early in 1995, we became the second county in the state to implement a new imaging and indexing system. That was quite an accomplishment and it reaped accolades from staff and customers alike.
My proudest accomplishments actually have more to do with people than technology. I am proud that I was one of a handful of registers who brought out the best in our WRDA and helped make it one of the most progressive organizations in the country. I am proud that my staff was transformed from one of pitifully low morale when I first walked in the door, to one that displays confidence, teamwork, competence, and kindness. They are true public servants.
You were very involved in the work of the Wisconsin Land Records Committee during the 1980s. As you reflect back, what is notable about that effort?
It was gratifying to see so many fine, professional people from various backgrounds come to together to learn, establish goals, conduct vigorous debates and eventually come to a consensus about the path to land records modernization for the State of Wisconsin.
The vision and work of the committee was on-going 20 years ago, and the WLIP was begun more than 15 years ago. Do you think the vision that existed then was realized, or did we, as a state, fall short of the goals?
For many areas of the state, the goals have definitely been realized, especially at the county level. Every county established a Land Information Office. The citizens of every county have benefited from the program. Unfortunately, most of the grant money that was originally designed to assist smaller counties with little real estate activity (and thus, meager LIO funds) was later diverted to land use planning (termed “comprehensive planning” in the statutes).
Many in the land records community were actually pleased to see this development but I personally think it is putting the cart before the horse. The GIS should be established and then all types of planning as well as other public services will benefit from the tremendous tools available for planning, analysis and service delivery.
The other disappointing aspect is that there is so little benefit to and participation by state agencies. This is the next challenge. To develop the types of cooperation, systems and data exchange at the state level that has been established in most counties.
In regard to the WLIP and the ROD, what do you see for the future, both from the perspective of Dane County and statewide?
Education of our political leaders must continue in order to keep the program alive and well. The WLIA and associated professional organizations must continue to energize members who in turn continue to promote land records modernization, which should be viewed as a process. The various projects that are accomplished within the framework of goal setting may have a beginning and an end, but land records modernization will continue to evolve as long as the human mind has a spark of creativity and resourcefulness.
Finally Jane, what does the future hold for you personally as you transition into retirement?
Rest, recuperation, revitalization. I will continue to serve on the Governor’s Electronic Recording Council and the County Executive has asked me to serve on the Civil Service Commission. I plan to care for my grandson Liam Paul Wilson part- time and spend more time enjoying our little horse farm with my husband in the Town of Dunn. I am quite ready to move on to the next stage of my life!