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After Costly e-Data Hemorrhage, Ingham County Looks at Tighter IT Ops

A sign at the Ingham County Clerk’s office in Mason advises residents of possible delays getting documents.
Mark Bashore
A sign at the Ingham County Clerk’s office in Mason advises residents of possible delays getting documents.

Doing business with Ingham County is gummed up for a while after the loss of more than 130,000 electronic records. 

In late May--after removing a server thought to contain expired data--techs discovered it included many active files needed by clerk Mike Bryanton.  Even worse,  they later learned a back-up duplication system failed. WKAR’s Mark Bashore looks into what went wrong and at plans to prevent a repeat.

Heading to an Ingham County Clerk’s office for, say, a business permit or marriage certificate never qualified as the highlight of anyone’s day.  But the experience has gotten more tedious for people doing business with the clerk since the May 25 gaffe.  

“This is a major issue with our software,” a clerk is overheard saying. “ I mean, it’s guns, it’s marriages, everything is on a delay now because of…software.”

Residents needing certain records from clerks’ offices have to wait longer--from a few minutes to….well…. 

“Everything--it’s going to be up to ten weeks,” the clerk continues.  “ Ten weeks.  So…I’m really sorry.”

Hard copies exist for all that was lost, but the snafu’s created stress for staff as they run interference with customers and deal with time-consuming work-arounds.  Blunders included a mislabeled server, useless back-up tapes and a hasty deletion of data.  

Unraveling the incident hasn’t been pleasant for County Commissioner Mark Grebner.

"It was an impressive series of screw-ups,” he says.

Grebner says that to confuse matters further, the department was under an interim manager and it was Memorial Day weekend. 

“This experience showed up that there are a whole bunch of weaknesses in our I-T department---that they simply haven’t been dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s and it suggests that if they could make this series of six errors, they’ve probably made some other errors too,” he continues.

So far, most residents are accepting the situation.  Clerk Mike Bryanton says some gun-permit seekers are the likely exception.

“That’s been the most stressful thing that, somehow, this was all intentional---an act of government to keep people from being able to get guns,” he says.

It’s not clear what the data hemorrhage will end up costing.  Commissioner Grebner ballparks the cost to the county to be between $50,000 and $100,000.  He estimates costs borne by the public to be about twice that.  Whatever the final price tag, unscheduled costs include a just-completed data retrieval effort, buying and installing a  new data system, and likely re-scanning and reloading of some hard copy documents.

Importantly, the county’s also reviewed the condition of its other back-ups, which include more tapes, as well as discs.   Deputy Controller John Neilsen would only say it will be a priority for the I-T department’s next director. 

“We want to go through and review all our processes and make sure we’re safeguarding all this vital data in the future,” he says.

Many in county government say it’s also time for an outside review of I-T department operations.  Department heads and county commissioners aren’t comfortable assigning blame for the mess.  They call it “a systemic problem,” suggesting there’s blame to go around.

The county hopes to hire a permanent I-T director within 60 days.

Clerk Mike Bryanton admits the episode is stressful.  Then he makes a suggestion that many in the ranks of the “tech-challenged” will understand: that the next director be conversant in a language other than I-T.

“Break it down and put it in layman’s terms, so I as county clerk or a controller or a sheriff or prosecutor understands what’s being said,” he says.

Ingham’s ‘County Services’ committee plans to discuss the situation at a meeting Tuesday evening at 6 p-m at its South Cedar offices.

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