CFAC v. Santa Clara

CFAC v. Santa Clara County


May 18, 2007
California Superior Court rules in favor of CFAC

Legal briefs and other major pleadings (by date)

California 6th Appellate Court of Appeals

April 11, 2008
CFAC ‘Return’ – Main Merits Brief on Appeal

Download (PDF, 4.53MB)

July 5, 2007
Santa Clara Reply to Preliminary Opposition

June 25, 2007
CFAC Preliminary Opposition to the Appeal

June 12, 2007
Santa Clara Appeal – Legal Arguments

June 12, 2007
Santa Clara Appeal – Facts – Petition for Ex Writ

California Superior Court

March 12, 2007
CFAC Supplemental Reply Brief

Download (PDF, 892KB)

March 2, 2007
Santa Clara Supplemental Opposition Brief

Download (PDF, 1.39MB)

February 5, 2007
CFAC Reply Brief

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January 30, 2007
Santa Clara Main Opposition Brief

Download (PDF, 1.11MB)

January 19, 2007
CFAC Opening Brief

Download (PDF, 1.26MB)

October 10, 2006
CFAC Petition

Download (PDF, 786KB)

Amici Briefs

June 12, 2008
Data Aggregators’ Brief

June 12, 2008
GIS Professionals’ Brief
GIS Amici Curiae

June 12, 2008
Media Organizations’ Brief

June 12, 2008
National Security and Freedom of Technology Brief

Opposition Amici Brief

June 12, 2008
Association of Counties and League of Cities Brief

July 2, 2008
CFAC’s Response to Opposition Amici Brief

Press Releases

May 22, 2007

In landmark open records case, court rules Santa Clara County must disclose parcel map data in “Geographic Information System”

Santa Clara County must make public–at minimal cost and without restrictions on use–its digital “basemap” showing parcel boundaries, the assessor’s parcel number for each parcel, parcel address, and other similar data for all propertis in the county, a court has ruled.

In a lawsuit filed by the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), the Superior Court for Santa Clara County affirmed that the basemap, which is the foundation for the county’s Geographic Information System, or GIS, is a public record to which the county can no longer limit access to just a small number of purchasers willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fees. (The case is CFAC v. Santa Clara County, No. 1-06-CV-072630.)

GIS technology provides a 3-D display, on maps, of information in a relational database. In effect, it allows a visual depiction, with precise locations, of the results of statistical analyses. Think Google Earth but with a local focus and specialized data. Used together with other publicly available data, the basemap allows citizens to monitor their local government on matters ranging from property tax assessments to zoning variances to street repairs.

The basemap will also enable journalists to do reporting that would not otherwise be possible. For example, reporters and bloggers could write stories that assess whether poor neighborhoods are being shortchanged for road repairs. Data on crime statistics, census information, political party affiliations, campaign contributions, environmental hazards and school test score results could be analyzed to spot trends and to test the validity of government policy assumptions and prescriptions.

“This landmark decision vindicates our view that government agencies may not claim exclusive control over records that are created with tax dollars,” said Peter Scheer, CFAC executive director. “While we encourage agencies to create databases and adapt public records to new technologies, the resulting applications cannot be run as monopoly businesses,” Scheer said.

“Affordable access to the GIS basemap means that the media and ordinary citizens will have a powerful tool for judging government performance in such areas as tax assessments, zoning variances and decisions on real estate development,” said Rachel Matteo-Boehm, CFAC’s lead counsel in the Santa Clara case. Ms. Matteo-Boehm is with the San Francisco office of Holme Roberts & Owen LLP.

In a 27-page decision, Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg rejected the county’s arguments that it could withhold the GIS basemap files because of their claimed status as computer software, and because the files allegedly contain “trade secrets” protected from disclosure under state and federal law. The court concluded the basemap consisted of data, not software. And it found that the county, by selling the basemap to private entities, had waived any trade secret protection to which the records otherwise might be entitled. The ruling was issued May 18 but not received by the parties until yesterday. (A copy is attached.)

The court found that federal copyright protection did not permit the county to deny a valid request under California’s Public Records Act. The court also turned aside the county’s attempt to avoid releasing the records by getting them designated “Critical Infrastructure Information” (CII) by the federal Department of Homeland Security. The court noted that this designation was sought only after CFAC filed suit, and despite the county’s past sales of the GIS basemap to 15 purchasers, five of them private companies.

The court said that, while some of the data in the basemap–relating to the location of easements for pipelines carrying water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir–might possibly qualify for the CII designation, the county had not met its burden of withholding the entire basemap on that basis. CFAC, while expressing doubt about the sensitivity of the information about the Hetch-Hetchy water easements, said in its briefs that it would be willing to accept the basemap with the pipeline information stripped out, if necessary.

Only 13 of California’s 58 counties currently limit access to their GIS by charging substantially more than the cost of reproduction for access. Of these, Santa Clara’s fees are the highest–over $100,000 for purchase of the full basemap. Orange County observes a similar policy. Both Los Angeles and San Diego Counties recently lifted restriction and use fees for access to their GIS basemaps.

“Santa Clara, because of its exorbitantly high GIS fees, was seen as a crucial obstacle, in California and nationally, to public access,” said CFAC’s Scheer. “As a result of this court victory, we hope and expect that Orange County and other holdouts will reconsider their GIS policies,” he said

CFAC is a nonprofit public interest organization dedicated to advancing free speech and open-government rights. A membership organization, CFAC’s activities include educational and informational programs, strategic litigation, legal information and consultation services, and legislative oversight of bills affecting free speech. CFAC’s members are newspapers and other news organizations, bloggers, libraries, civic organizations, academics, freelance journalists, community activists–and ordinary individuals seeking help in asserting rights of citizenship.

CFAC’s Board consists of people involved in both “old” and “new” media, including, in the latter category, recently elected members Nicole Wong, associate general counsel for Google, and Neil Budde, general manager of Yahoo! News.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

CFAC Sues Santa Clara County for Release of Computerized Mapping Data.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006—CFAC filed suit against Santa Clara County to force it to make public computer-readable mapping data that the county now sells to a handful of customers at eye-popping fees that can run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The suit, filed in Santa Clara County Superior, claims that the digital files are public documents, copies of which must be released under the California Public records Act and Prop 59, the open-government constitutional amendment enacted in 2004. The county, in its denial of the records request, argues (among other things) that the mapping data are proprietary and copyrighted.

The mapping data are part of Santa Clara County’s geographic information system, or GIS, which provides a computerized, visual depiction of all land in the county. The so-called “base map,” which CFAC requested, is the foundation of the GIS, and shows such things as the boundaries of all property parcels, the tax assessor’s parcel number for all properties, and the street address for each parcel.

To this can be added many other categories of data, including utilities, soil survey information, ambulance response areas, geological fault lines, flood zones, noise areas and more.

Think “Google Earth,” but for just Santa Clara.

Under current policies, the county makes the base map data available to the public, but at fees that are vastly higher than what the Public Records Act allows. The fee for county-wide parcel information, for example, is approximately $250,000. In addition, those receiving the data are required by the county to sign a non-
disclosure agreement.

“The county, through the combination of prohibitively high fees and restrictions on use of the data, has created a monopoly,” said Peter Scheer, CFAC’s executive director. “Our law suit seeks to break down this monopoly and make the mapping data available to the people who paid for it—namely, the public,” Scheer said.

Scheer said that if the county base map were readily available, citizens would be able to see if their property is fairly assessed, or if they are being overcharged for home or flood insurance. “Access to the base map makes it possible for citizens to see hold local government more accountable,” he said.

CFAC also argues that making GIS mapping data generally available will benefit the public by leveling the playing field for regulatory decisions. “Real estate developers can afford to pay for the GIS database, but residents living near a development site don’t have access because they can’t pay the huge license fees,” said CFAC counsel Rachel Matteo-Boehm, a lawyer with the firm of Holme Roberts & Owen LLP in San Francisco.

Public disclosure of the GIS base map will “provide the public with an essential tool for monitoring its government,” she said.

Most counties in California have GIS systems. Policies regarding public access vary from county to county. San Diego County recently abandoned its practice of charging hefty license fees for use of the county GIS, having concluded, on the basis of a 2005 Attorney General legal opinion, that the mapping data were public records and had to be released.

In the News

June 14, 2007
San Jose Mercury News
County fights ruling on access to map database

Santa Clara County has appealed a Superior Court ruling in hopes of blocking easy distribution to the public of its digital mapping database, which includes detailed parcel information. The court ruled in May that the county should make the geographical database available to the public at a reasonable cost.

May 22, 2007
San Jose Mercury News
Judge rules Santa Clara County must release map database

A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge has ruled that Santa Clara County should make its geographical mapping database that includes detailed parcel information available to the public at a reasonable cost. The decision is an outgrowth of a lawsuit filed last October against the county by the watchdog group California First Amendment Coalition. The group said county officials overcharge for the mapping information, making it prohibitive to many groups and companies that seek it for a variety of uses.

April 3, 2007
San Jose Mercury News
Santa Clara County stops selling its data for electronic maps, claims security risk

After years of selling data to make electronic maps of Santa Clara County, officials have temporarily stopped the practice, saying they didn’t want some of the information to end up in the hands of terrorists. The decision came as a lawsuit over the price the county charges for the information is entering its final stages. CFAC, the plaintiff in the case, says the county is using homeland security as a smoke screen so it can continue to sell the information at a high price.

October 20, 2006
Geospatial Solutions
Santa Clara County sued for release of computerized mapping data

An open-government organization has filed suit against Santa Clara County, California, to force it to make publicly available more reasonably priced computer-readable mapping data.

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  • I looked up “Santa Clara” in the “news” section, but the short synopsis that came up did not include links to court decisions. Only after I clicked on “comment” did the reference with hyperlinks appear. There should be a link on the top level to the detailed section; “comment” is not clear.

  • I looked up “Santa Clara” in the “news” section, but the short synopsis that came up did not include links to court decisions. Only after I clicked on “comment” did the reference with hyperlinks appear. There should be a link on the top level to the detailed section; “comment” is not clear.

  • Hey,
    I want you to know I placed a link to your website on my page. I dont think this is the right place to put this ( CFAC v. Santa Clara : First Amendment Coalition ), so if not please remove this. I thought maybe you can profit a little off my traffic since our websites are somewhat familiar.
    Gary Larroque

    The link is on the right sidebar on my page!

  • Hey,
    I want you to know I placed a link to your website on my page. I dont think this is the right place to put this ( CFAC v. Santa Clara : First Amendment Coalition ), so if not please remove this. I thought maybe you can profit a little off my traffic since our websites are somewhat familiar.
    Gary Larroque

    The link is on the right sidebar on my page!

Comments are closed.