SALEM — Lawmakers have voted to turn over the old Superior Court building on Federal Street to the Salem Redevelopment Authority, and state leaders want to move the Southern Essex Registry of Deeds from Shetland Park back downtown into the historic building.
The register of deeds, John O'Brien, however, is vehemently opposed to the plan and is calling for Gov. Charlie Baker to veto the bill.
The Legislature passed House bill 2837 Tuesday, which conveys the vacant Superior Court and County Commissioners buildings on Federal Street to the SRA for $1.
The bill also effectively hands the former Essex Law Library, three courtrooms and the court clerk's office — about 18,000 to 20,000 square feet of space — over to the Secretary of State to house the registry.
"I am pleased to relocate the (registry) to a permanent location in downtown Salem, which this office will own," said Secretary of State William Galvin in an announcement Wednesday.
The move was supported by state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, who said she's thrilled for the city and the Registry of Deeds, and how it keeps "the registry, its important services and jobs in the city of Salem."
The Registry of Deeds has been at Shetland Park for eight years, since it was moved out of the Salem Probate and Family Court building when construction first began on the new J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center on Federal Street.
In that time, the registry has gradually changed its size, its workforce and the way it delivers land transaction information to the public. The old Superior Court campus, meanwhile, has been vacant since 2012, when the court's activities were moved to the new state courthouse next door.
O'Brien said the state doesn't have "$30-40 million to spend creating a registry. We're in a great location right now, pay great square-foot rent, (and) willing to cut this space in half.
"This was shocking that he (Galvin) can't take five minutes out of his busy schedule to pick up the phone," O'Brien continued.
The debate between the secretary of state and register of deeds — two elected positions — over the location of the Southern Essex registry has been going for some time. Galvin's administration has described the reasoning behind the move as a way to safeguard the historic buildings and save the state about $645,000 a year in rent currently going to Shetland Park.
The statement announcing the bill's passage says the secretary of state's office would "make annual payments commensurate with the cost of constructing or leasing the space" in exchange for the move. The annual cost of those payments was not clear.
O'Brien, meanwhile, has been incredibly fond of his current home. With ample parking and "reasonable rent" for a single-floor space, he said that efficiencies in how he has led his department over the years would allow him to cut his usable space in half, saving the state half of what Galvin is looking to save in total.
He's also been vocal about that opportunity, O'Brien explained.
"I've sent letters, asked for meetings, and I get no response from (Galvin)," he said. "I can't, for the life of me, understand how one elected official can say to another elected official, 'This is where we're going to put you.'"
That criticism continued Wednesday after O'Brien learned about the announcement. He said "the people in Essex County" would bear the burden of the move, given its cost.
Galvin's office did not return a phone call seeking comment.
O'Brien has a storied history in the region. He and his registry have been recognized nationally for being the first in the nation to expose Wall Street and big banks for their practice of fraudulently recording robo-signed mortgage documents in registries across the country.
Last spring, O'Brien also announced he had been diagnosed in 2015 with Lewy body dementia, a condition similar to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. O'Brien plans to seek re-election when his current term is up in 2019. Galvin's current term also ends that year.
Leaders: Bill preserves historic gem
Mayor Kim Driscoll, in the state's announcement, thanked state leaders "for being such strong partners and for their work with the city to see this important bill through to final passage. We are excited for the opportunities the re-development of the Superior Court and County Commissioners building will bring to our downtown to restore, re-use and enliven these important historic assets."
Reached later, Driscoll declined to comment on the dispute between Galvin and O'Brien.
State Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, who authored the bill with Lovely, likewise said he was proud of the bill's passage.
"I have a deep appreciation not only for the beautiful structure, but also the important history of it," the retired police chief said. "I am proud to have been a part of ensuring this gem will continue to serve our residents while reminding us of our past."
Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523, DLuca@salemnews.com or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.