CFAC today registered its opposition to legislation that seeks to vest in local and state governments monopoly control over real estate data used in digital mapping systems.
The legislation, AB 1978, submitted by Assembly member Jose Solorio (D-Orange County), would exempt from the California Public Records Act the basemap data essential for many local applications of digital mapping or “geographic information systems” (GIS). This exclusion would free local governments–Orange County included–to restrict access to the data to a handful of corporations able to pay five- and six-figure access fees.
The purpose of the bill is to invalidate a court victory achieved by CFAC in a suit against Santa Clara County. The Superior Court ruled that the county’s basemap data were public records and therefore had to be made available for the cost of duplication. That ruling is now on appeal. –PS
Below is CFAC’s letter of protest to Assembly member Solorio:
March 6, 2008
Honorable Jose Solorio
California State Assembly
State Capitol, Room 2196
Sacramento, CA 95814
RE: Oppose AB 1978
Dear Assemblyman Solorio:
On behalf of the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), an organization dedicated to freedom of information and open government, I write to oppose your AB 1978 as a misguided attempt to convert public information—paid for by California taxpayers and belonging to all California citizens—into a proprietary government asset to which access will be limited to a handful of private corporations able to pay huge licensing fees.
AB 1978 would amend the California Public Records Act (CPRA). Section 6254.9 of the CPRA now provides a narrow exemption from disclosure for “computer software” (section 6254.9(a)), which is defined to include “computer mapping systems “ (section 6254.9(b)). Under AB 1978, this limited exemption for mapping software programs written by or for a government agency would be greatly expanded to cover not just the programs, but the data used in mapping programs. Such data are described in the bill as:
“… assembled model data, metadata, and listings of metadata, regardless of medium, and tools by which computer basemapping system records are created, stored, and retrieved. “
This amendment has in its crosshairs a 2007 decision by the Superior Court in Santa Clara County affirming the public’s right of access to the real property parcel basemap data used with the county’s geographic information system (GIS). In response to a CPRA request for a copy of Santa Clara’s parcel basemap data—to be used by journalists to analyze the fairness and accuracy of real estate appraisals—the county said access would be subject to a confidentiality agreement and payment of fees in excess of $100,000.
The Superior Court, after multiple hearings and extensive briefing, held that the parcel basemap data were public records, notwithstanding the county’s claim under a variety of legal theories that the data were the proprietary property of the county. The court specifically rejected the argument that parcel basemap data constitute a “computer mapping system” within the meaning of the CPRA. Moreover, the court held that, as “public records,” the data must be made available at the (relatively modest) cost of duplication, not the huge fees the county was accustomed to charging.
AB 1978 would effectively reverse this decision, vesting in government agencies (including Orange County) monopoly control over the parcel basemap data—and with it, the ability to charge user fees so high that the public is de facto cut off from access altogether. This exclusion means that citizens will be denied the benefits of myriad GIS-based services and applications for which the basemap data are essential. Enriching government agencies at the expense of the citizens those agencies are supposed to serve is truly a perversion of public policy.
The decision of the Superior Court in the Santa Clara case is currently on appeal. Although the Legislature has the power to override the courts on an issue of statutory interpretation, it is highly inappropriate for the Legislature to reach out and preempt ongoing judicial consideration of an issue. Such interference with a co-equal branch of government raises concerns about separation-of-powers and judicial independence. At minimum, the Legislature should stay its hand until the appeals process has run its course.
In enacting the CPRA and, more recently, the constitutional amendment known as Prop 59, the people of California made the decision that access to government information is a universal right, not a special privilege to be sold to the highest bidder. AB 1978 is contrary both to the letter and spirit of that decision and therefore should be rejected.