Orange County Slammed on Records Access

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In a major victory for press and open government advocates, the California Supreme Court reversed a lower court and said Orange County must grant access to its electronic mapping data without charging a licensing fee. The case was brought by the Sierra Club seeking access to mapping data in its fight to protect public land.
     "Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy," wrote Judge Goodwin Liu for a unanimous court.
     Several open government and media organizations, including the First Amendment Coalition and the Los Angeles Times, joined as amici curiae after the Sierra Club filed suit over Orange County's decision to charge it for electronic records of mapping data, stored in the geographic information system (GIS) file format.
     The Sierra Club had lodged a California Public Records Act request in 2007 to look at basic information on boundaries, parcel numbers and street addresses in Orange as part of an effort to protect public land from property developers.
     GIS base maps could raise public awareness about protected open spaces in Orange County, as well as areas threatened by real estate development, the environmental group said.
     Journalists, the media, scientists and public interest groups use GIS base maps to look at data by creating layered digital maps, a feature not available in other file formats, according to the brief from Sierra Club's supporters.
     Citing a software exception under the Public Records Act, Orange County offered the Sierra Club the records as pdfs but required payment of a licensing fee for the same records in GIS-formatted files and restricted use of the information. The Sierra Club pointed out that Orange County's policy ran counter to the policy of 47 other counties in California, including Los Angeles.
     The Sierra Club sought a state court order compelling Orange to only charge a copying fee for GIS records, but the trial court sided with the county, and an appellate panel affirmed.
     In a unanimous reversal Monday, the Supreme Court found that, while the GIS mapping software is exempt from the Public Records Act, the county's GIS database is not.
     Writing for the 7-member court, Liu said that denying access to GIS-formatted data would "substantially undermine" the California Public Records Act.
     "The PRA and the California Constitution provide the public with a right of access to government information," he wrote.
     "Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions." Liu quoted from an earlier California Supreme Court opinion. "In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process."
     "In adopting the PRA, the Legislature declared that "access to information concerning the conduct of the people·s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state," wrote Liu.
     With those principles in mind, he reversed the lower court and ruled that GIS-formatted mapping systems are public records.
      Rachel Matteo-Boehm, the Bryan Cave lawyer who wrote the amici brief, said the ruling established a powerful precedent in favor of access to electronic records. The San Francisco-based attorney also represents Courthouse News Service in its action against Ventura county clerk for refusal to allow timely access to new complaints.
     "It confirms that the public has a right of access to records that are critical to observing one's government," Matteo-Boehm said. "This decision stands for the idea that it's important to have access to information maintained by the government in an electronic format, in the very format they are maintained."
     Matteo-Boehm noted that California Proposition 59, approved by voters in 2004, amended the state constitution to narrowly interpret exemptions that limited access to public records, like the "software exception."
     She said governments may have used a ruling in Orange's favor to "block access to other kinds of electronic records."
     "If you hope to monitor the government, you have to have the same information the government has," Matteo-Boehm added.
     First Amendment Coalition headed the amici group along with the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Bay Area News Group, San Francisco Examiner, Bloomberg News, Courthouse News Service, McClatchy Co., Gannett Co., Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Wired and other public interest groups and media organizations.
     In an email, EFF staff attorney Mark Rumold said the ruling is a great decision for California.
     "The court recognized the substantial risks in tolerating an interpretation of the CPRA [California Public Records Act] that exempts public records from disclosure simply because they were stored or formatted in a particular medium or manner," Rumold said. "The court also recognized the importance of California's Constitution in resolving doubts about whether particular records should be withheld or disclosed."
     The "decision makes clear" that "doubts should be resolved in favor of disclosure," Rumold added.
     "Overall, this is a great decision for California, and one that will ensure that the CPRA will continue to have force in the digital age," Rumold said.
     Orange County spokesman Howard Sutter declined to respond to the court's ruling, but said the decision is under review.
     Sierra Club attorney Sabrina Venskus could not immediately be reached for comment.
     Shawn Hagerty represented League of California Cities and California State Association of Counties as amici curiae on behalf of County of Orange. Hagerty did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
     Judge Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Judge Joyce Kennard, Judge Marvin Baxter, Kathryn Werdegar, Judge Ming Chin and Judge Carol Corrigan joined Liu's 22-page ruling.