Thursday, October 8, 2009

Open records victory in Santa Clara County

The Merc's John Woolfolk reports that Santa Clara County has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit over the county's attempt to charge astronomically high fees for access to the county's electronic maps.

It's the largest payment of its kind in a California public records dispute, experts told the Merc.

The money was paid this week to the California First Amendment Coalition to cover its legal bills in the three-year fight.

The maps — including aerial photographs, jurisdictional boundaries, assessor parcel information, streets and buildings — are free in other counties, but Santa Clara County wanted to charge as much as $250,000 for the countywide data.

The county decided to settle after 6th District U.S. Court of Appeal rejected the county's arguments in a February ruling.

Among the arguments the court rejected:
    • that the county's GIS (geographic information system) maps were not subject to disclosure under the public records act because they contained sensitive information such as the location of water supply pipelines that were not subject to release under federal homeland security law;

    • the county's maps were copyright protected;

    • that the county was entitled to recover the expense of compiling the data in addition to the copying costs.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the $500,000 judgment should serve as a warning to all government officials that they may pay a steep price for stiffing the public on records requests.

"It sends a very, very clear message that if they ignore their obligations under our open government laws, they better treat that as a real liability," Scheer said.

1 comment:

Karen Stevenson said...

I'd like to see the county review what it charges for other documents, too. My guess is that the county's mindset is to charge as much money as possible to discourage public access to information.