These days, when a real person sets foot into the Orange County register of deeds office, Mark Chilton’s heart skips a beat.

Providing residents with hands-on assistance in searching for records is one of his favorite parts of the job. Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 90 percent of the office’s transactions have taken place online—but he still gets the occasional visitor.

A month ago, for instance, a mother and daughter came in to see if Chilton could help them verify that one of their ancestors, Tony Strayhorn, was the first Black landowner in what would come to be Carrboro.

“We dug deep and searched for those records, and found that the oral history within the family is indeed well-supported by the documents at the register of deeds office,” Chilton says.

After finding the property records, Chilton unearthed Strayhorn’s original marriage certificate from 1883 and “put it into their hands.”

“It brought all of us to the edge of tears,” Chilton says, “to hold it in hand and see this original document about two people who were real leaders in this community.”

Chilton is a NC Central law school alum who previously practiced real estate law and served as both a Chapel Hill town councilman and the mayor of Carrboro. He’s held the register of deeds position since 2014, when his vow to issue same-sex marriage licenses in the ultra-progressive county gave him an edge over incumbent Deborah Brooks. 

Since taking office, Chilton has added passport services to the office, implemented an alert service to guard against real estate fraud, and completed the digitization of every deed book dating back to 1755. 

One of his main goals has been ensuring that records from the Civil War era are brought to light. He and his staff have combed through 18,000 pages of handwritten documents from 1761 to the mid-1860s, digitizing those relating to the sales of enslaved people to make them more easily available to historians and so that “descendants have the resources they need to be able to tell those stories themselves.”

“We want to uncover a suppressed history of Orange County,” Chilton says. “We’re never going to get over what happened—what white people did to people of color—without, at a bare minimum, a first step, an open acknowledgement of what was done.” 

If re-elected, Chilton plans to complete this current undertaking—there are a number of documents left to upload, and he’s also in the process of compiling records referencing free people of color in Orange County before the Civil War. He also aims to continue his work in creating a system that will eliminate about 100,000 pages of unnecessary printed paper per year.

In the upcoming primary, Chilton will be up against Penny Rich, a former personal chef and caterer who has served on the Orange Water And Sewer Authority board of directors, the Chapel Hill town council, and Orange County Board of County Commissioners.

If elected, Rich says her experience in public service and her degree in communications technology will be of good use in fulfilling her two main priorities: improving customer service and revamping the office’s website.

“It’s just awful. It’s almost like we’re in the past, where you had to get three or four clicks to get your information,” she says about the website, adding that “my opponent says everything is digitized—everything isn’t digitized.” 

Chilton says the website was redesigned to be more user-friendly last year and refutes Rich’s claim that there are deed books yet to be uploaded.

According to Chilton, residents come into the office for an expert’s assistance in researching complex topics, but Rich highlights these kinds of visits as proof that the database is difficult to navigate and lacks information.

“We still have people going to the office and pulling out the dusty old books prior to 1932 to possibly do a little research on deeds,” Rich says.

Like her opponent, Rich notes the importance of digitizing Civil War-era deeds, but she says it’s a problem that the project is only partially done.

Similarly, Rich says the current office is too leisurely in conducting its primary services—namely property closings, which “sometimes take over an hour.” (Chilton says this recording function typically takes about 20 minutes.) If elected, Rich says she hopes to maximize efficiency by streamlining procedures and providing service during lunchtime.

Rich’s last grievance with the incumbent Register of Deeds is “he claims to be a progressive Democrat” but supported Pat McCrory’s 2008 bid for governor of North Carolina. Chilton says he “deeply regrets” the endorsement.

“I worked with him when we were both mayors, advocating for better funding for public transportation,” Chilton says. “[But] he was a terrible Governor who showed himself to be shallow and to sink to any depth for political gain.”

Since Chilton and Rich are both Democrats, the May 17 primary will effectively decide the winner—only one candidate will proceed to the general election on November 8. Early voting begins next Thursday, April 28. 

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