Tag Archive | Public Records Act

CA Supreme Court Issues Ruling on GIS Open Records Case

For the history of Sierra Club v. Orange County see GIS Cafe Blog (May 10, 2013): Sierra Club v. Orange County Has Its Day In Court

For the CA Supreme Court ruling (PDF), visit: CA Supreme Court Decision July 8, 2013

To the extent that the term ―computer mapping system is ambiguous, the constitutional canon requires us to interpret it in a way that maximizes the public‘s access to information unless the Legislature has expressly provided to the contrary. (Officeof Inspector General v. Superior Court, supra, 189 Cal.App.4th at p.709.) As explained above, we find nothing in the text, statutory context, or legislative history of the term―computer mapping system‖ that allows us to say the Legislature clearly sought to exclude GIS formatted parcel data from the definition of a public record when it can be disclosed without any accompanying software.

Applying the interpretive rule set forth in article I, section 3, subdivision (b)(2), we must conclude that section 6254.9(b)‘s exclusion of―computer mapping systems from the definition of a public record does not encompass a parcel database in a GIS file format. Contrary to what the County contends, this reading of the statute does not ―repeal or nullify‖ a ―statutory exception to the right of access to public records‖ in contravention of article I, section 3, subdivision (b)(5). Our holding simply construes the terms of section 6254.9 in light of the constitutional mandate that a statute ―shall be narrowly construed if it limits the right of access.(Cal. Const., art. I, §3, subd. (b)(2).)
We note that this interpretation is consistent with a 2005 opinion letter issued by the Attorney General in response to a request by a member of the Assembly to determine whether ― parcel boundary map data maintained in an electronic format by a county assessor [is] subject to public inspection and copying under provisions of the California Public Records Act (88 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 153, 153 (2005).) The opinion letter explained that ―the term ̳computer mapping systems‘ in section 6254.9 does not refer to or include basic maps and boundary information per se (i.e., the basic data compiled, updated, and maintained by county assessors), but rather denotes unique computer programs to process such data using mapping functions original programs that have been designed and produced by a public agency.‖ (88 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. at p. 159.) Accordingly, the Attorney General concluded, ―parcel map data maintained in an electronic format by a county assessor does not qualify as a ̳computer mapping system‘under the exemption provisions of section 6254.9 (88 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. at p. 159) and must be provided upon request as a public record at a fee limited to the direct cost of producing the copy (id.at pp.163–164). As noted above, the record here indicates that 47 counties in California maintain GIS-formatted parcel base maps and provide access to those GIS-formatted databases as public records. (Ante, at p. 3.) Of those 47 counties, 19 changed their fee policies following the Attorney General‘s opinion letter, according to Sierra Club‘s expert.
Because section 6254.9(b) does not exclude GIS-formatted databases like the OC Landbase from the definition of a public record, such databases are subject to disclosure unless otherwise exempt from the PRA. Unlike the records at issue in County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court (2009) 170 Cal.App.4th 1301, the County here does not argue that the OC Landbase is subject to any other exemptions. The fact that the County offered to produce the information underlying the database in an alternative format suggests that no such exemption applies. Similarly, the County‘s general practice of producing the OC Landbase to the public, albeit pursuant to a licensing agreement, suggests that its contents do not implicate any of the confidentiality or other concerns underlying th e exemptions set forth in section 6254. Because the OC Landbase is not excluded from the definition of a public record under section 6254.9(b), and because the County does not argue that the database is otherwise exempt from disclosure, the County must produce the OC Landbase in response to Sierra Club‘s request―in any electronic format in which it holds the information‖ (§6253.9 (a)(1)) at a cost not to exceed the direct cost of duplication (§§ 6253.9 (a)(2),6253, subd. (b)).
CONCLUSION
For the reasonsabove, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal andremand to that court with directions to remand to the superior court to issue a writ consistent with this opinion.
Advertisements

Does Government Geographic Data Belong to the People?

By Bruce Joffe, Cadalyst, February 8, 2012

After nearly three years of legal wrangling, the Sierra Club and Orange County are now facing off in the California Supreme Court. The issue that brought the two organizations into conflict is one of great importance to GIS professionals and non-users alike: public access to government databases. After the California First Amendment Coalition won a California Public Records Act (PRA) lawsuit against Santa Clara County, in April 2009, Sierra Club filed a similar suit against Orange County. Sierra Club needed Orange County’s parcel basemap in the GIS-compatible database format, but couldn’t afford to pay the price Orange County was charging — $475,000 — and didn’t believe that the County had the right to charge more than the cost of duplication, as prescribed under the PRA. Orange County defended its data sales policy with the so-called “software exemption” of the PRA, which states that government agencies do not have to provide software for the cost of duplication, as they do for the data that they use to make public decisions. … Sierra Club appealed the case, but the 4th District Court of Appeal affirmed the decision in support of Orange County. The County’s logic was that GIS includes software and data (citing ESRI’s definition of GIS as “a collection of software and data”), the County’s landbase is a GIS, GIS is a type of computer mapping system, and CMS is excluded by PRA section 6254.9; therefore, the County’s GIS landbase data is excluded….

Read more about this important debate. For the full text of the article, visit Does Government GIS Data Belong to the People? | Cadalyst.

Sierra Club Files Appeal in Orange County FOI Lawsuit

Source: Bruce Joffe, GeoConnection, September 14, 2010

Receiving the Orange County Superior Court‘s final decision on August 9, 2010, which granted Orange County an exemption from the California Public Records Act (PRA), the Sierra Club has decided to continue fighting for access to the County’s GIS parcel basemap database in the California Court of Appeal.

The trial court’s judge, James J. DiCesare, ruled that the mapping database maintained by the County is part of a “computer mapping system” and is exempted under the PRA’s exemption (Section 6254.9) that excludes software from public record. The software exemption states, ” ‘computer software’ includes computer mapping systems, computer programs, and computer graphics systems.” …

For full text of the article, click here.

County Superior Court Rules Parcel Data Not Public Record

All Points Blog: An Orange County, California judge ruled this week that the parcel data requested by the Sierra Club is not available at the cost of duplication, as are other data under the state’s Public Records Act. Instead, the judge ruled, that dataset is considered software, and thus is exempt from that regulation. The Club and others will continue to be charged $375,000 for the data, until an expected appeal. Our editors unravel the case, the ruling and the implications of the decision.

For podcast, visit the All Points Blog.

Source: By Joe Francica and Adena Schutzberg, Directions Magazine. Posted June 1, 2010.

Kevin Pomfret, in his blog Spatial Law and Policy, “found the judge to be saying that spatial data is software as that terms is currently defined in the applicable section of the code. That is a subtle but important distinction because it suggests that the best way to address the question is not through litigation, but by putting pressure on the legislature to make the definition more accurate.” Posted June 10, 2010.

Appeals Court Rejects Santa Clara County’s Basemap Data Sale

Appeals Court Rejects Santa Clara County’s Basemap Data Sale – February 5, 2009

In a unanimous decision, the three-Justice panel of the California Court of Appeal affirmed the Santa Clara County Superior Court’s decision requiring Santa Clara County to comply with public requests for a copy of its GIS parcel basemap, under the conditions of California’s Public Records Act (PRA). The Court validated the California First Amendment Coalition’s (CFAC) demand for the data at no more than the cost of duplication, and without restrictions of use. In its appeal of the trial court’s decision, the County tried several arguments to justify its policy of selling GIS basemap data for over $150,000, and belatedly, for withholding the data with the claim that its parcel basemap was Protected Critical Infrastructure Information (PCII). The Appellate Court’s decision states: I. Federal homeland security provisions do not apply here. Both the Critical Infrastructure Information Act and the accompanying Department of Homeland Security regulations make a distinction between /submitters/ of critical infrastructure information (to DHS) and /recipients/ of PCII (from DHS). The federal prohibition on disclosure of PCII applies only to recipients of PCII. Because the County did not receive PCII (it submitted its data to DHS in order to obtain PCII designation), the federal provisions do not apply. II. The proffered California Public Records Act exemption does not apply. After independently weighing the competing interests in light of the trial court’s factual findings, the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure. III. There is no statutory basis either for copyrighting the GIS basemap or for conditioning its release on a licensing agreement. This issue was a matter of first impression (“de novo”) in California, for which the Court concluded that “end user restrictions are incompatible with the purposes and operation of the CPRA.” Peter Scheer, Executive Director of CFAC stated, “The Santa Clara decision has potentially far-reaching implications. … It could also apply to virtually any government-created databases, at the local level and statewide, in California and in other states.” Bruce Joffe, organizer of the Open Data Consortium project and technical adviser to CFAC, said, “The Court of Appeal decision soundly refuted Santa Clara County’s attempt to restrict public access to its parcel basemap under various mis-applied principles. In doing so, the Court has clarified public access principles that previously were undetermined.” Item (I.) prevents county governments from using “homeland security” as a blanket cover for any or all of its GIS data that may have some market value. This clarification of the Homeland Security Act’s (6 U.S.C. § 133) application of the PCII designation is new (“de novo”). The Court pointed out a fundamental contradiction in the County’s claim of PCII restriction to distributing its basemap data. If the GIS basemap in the County’s hands was to be considered PCII, then the County could use its own data “only for purposes appropriate under the CII Act, including securing critical infrastructure or protected systems” since the federal law strictly restricts use of that data to the narrow purposes enumerated in the CII Act (6 C.F.R. § 29.3(b) (2007). Referring to the remarks of a private commentator, (Bagley, “Benchmarking, Critical Infrastructure Security, and the Regulatory War on Terror” (2006), the decision notes [the County] “cannot use DHS as a ‘black hole’ in which to hide information that would otherwise have come to light.” Item (II.) confirms the public’s interest in making county GIS data accessible. Citing case law (/Connell v. Superior Court/,/ supra/, 56 Cal.App.4th at p. 616.), the Court noted, “If the records [that are] sought pertain to the conduct of the people’s business, there /is/ a public interest in disclosure. The /weight/ of that interest is proportionate to the gravity of governmental tasks sought to be illuminated and the directness with which the disclosure will serve to illuminate.” Some of CFAC’s proffered examples of how access to the GIS basemap will contribute to understanding of government activities included “comparison of property tax assessments, issuance of permits, treatment of tax delinquent properties, equitable deployment of public services, issuance of zoning variances.” These examples were well illustrated in the Amicus Brief co-signed by 77 GIS Professionals. Item (III.) limits county government from copyrighting its data, or from using licensing agreements to restrict use of its data by the public. The Court agreed with CFAC that “No reported California decision has ever concluded that a public agency may refuse to release copies of public records to protect its own purported copyright.” Balancing “the interplay between copyright law and California’s public records law,” the Court affirmed that “unrestricted disclosure is required.” Doing so serves the purpose of the statute, which is “increasing freedom of information by giving members of the public access to information in the possession of public agencies.” “That policy would be undercut by permitting the County to place extra-statutory restrictions on the records that it must produce, through the use of end user agreements.” Is this issue over now? Well, maybe so, or maybe no. Santa Clara County has the right, until March 17, to petition the California Supreme Court to review the case.

Source: California First Amendment Coalition, February 5, 2009

%d bloggers like this: