In landmark open records case, court rules Santa Clara County must disclose parcel map database to California First Amendment Coalition

(CFAC) 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 properties in the county, a court has ruled.

In a lawsuit filed by 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.

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

Click here for the 28-page court decision.

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