Angeles Chapter wins key Public Record Acts court victory and access to computerized geographic information

Monday, July 8, 2013
Dean Wallraff

The California Supreme Court ruled July 8 in a unanimous decision that geographic information systems (GIS) data must be provided to the public for a nominal fee under the Public Records Act. The decision has broad application, confirming that information not exempt from disclosure under the act must be provided to the public for a nominal charge, regardless of whether it is kept in paper form or as electronic data. 

The court also affirmed the public’s civil right under the California Constitution of access to government  information, holding that it can be used as a tiebreaker in case such as this, where the public right of access is disputed.

The case started in 2007, when the Sierra Club requested from Orange County a copy of its GIS parcel database, containing the location and layout of each legal parcel of land in the county. At that time, Orange County licensed copies of the parcel database to private companies and public agencies for $375,000. The county also required licensees to sign non-disclosure agreements preventing further distribution. The county supported its GIS operation in part with licensing revenues from the sale of parcel data and argued that this revenue stream would dry up if the county was required to provide copies of the data to the public for a nominal fee under the Public Records Act.

Sierra Club files lawsuit

The Sierra Club sued in 2009. Orange County argued that the parcel database is “computer software,” as that term is used in the Public Records Act, because it is part of a “computer mapping system.” Under the act, software is not a public record, and software includes “computer mapping systems.” The Orange County Superior Court agreed with Orange County, denying the Sierra Club’s request to compel the county to provide the parcel database under the Act. The Sierra Club appealed and lost on appeal in the Fourth District Court of Appeal, in Santa Ana, Orange County, California.

In September, 2011, the California Supreme Court agreed to review the case. Amici curiae filed briefs on behalf of the Sierra Club, including the Media and Open Government coalition, representing newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register, a coalition of companies that provide value-added services based on electronic public records, the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group of academic researchers at UCLA, Jack Cohen, and a coalition of GIS professionals.

Attorney Sabrina Venskus, the Sierra Club’s lead counsel, argued the case in the California Supreme Court in early May. On July 8, the Court ruled that the lower courts got it wrong. The court’s seven justices decided unanimously in favor of the Sierra Club, ordering that the county be compelled to provide the Sierra Club with a copy of its parcel database for the cost of producing the physical copy. Orange County will now join the other 49 out of 58 California counties that provide their parcel data to the public for a nominal charge.

The Sierra Club Angeles Chapter’s GIS Committee will use the data to make maps for its conservation campaigns. GIS Parcel data previously obtained from Los Angeles County under the Public Records Act was used to map land parcels in the Verdugo Mountains in the cities of Los Angeles, Glendale and Burbank, color-coding each parcel as to whether it was publicly or privately owned. This allowed a task force including the Sierra Club and agencies from the three cities to prioritize the acquisition of open space in the Verdugos. The club continually produces GIS maps in support of its conservation campaigns, and will put the Orange County data to good use in fighting for the environment.

Wider implications of the ruling

The Supreme Court decision focused on GIS parcel data, but its holding applies to all types of computer mapping data. GIS data is becoming increasingly important as state and local agencies continue to incorporate it into their operations. Some agencies have requirements that all street addresses in their databases be geocoded, i.e. converted into latitude and longitude, i.e. GIS data. Applications go beyond purely environmental issues.  For example, public health agencies use computer mapping technology to track the spread of infectious diseases. Following today’s decision, all this information will be available to the public, who can use it for their own purposes, at a nominal charge.

Attorney Sabrina Venskus stated: “This is great day for California’s citizens: the public will now have appropriate access to important government mapping data – government records which are only used and useful in electronic format – and taxpayers won’t be required to pay for data they already effectively paid for with their tax dollars when the County compiled and organized those records in the first instance.”

Though the information at issue in the case was GIS data, today’s decision affirms a previous Supreme Court holding that electronic databases are subject to the Public Records Act disclosure requirements when they contain data that’s not exempt under the Act. This is important because agencies increasingly keep their records in databases. “The move from paper to electronic recordkeeping shouldn’t affect the public’s right to the information,” says Dean Wallraff, another lawyer representing the Sierra Club in the case.

Venskus added: “It is extraordinarily gratifying that the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of my client after having litigated this case for almost five years and suffering through two losses in the lower courts. Yet Mr. Wallraff and I felt so strongly about the public having access to this important information, and that Orange County was in violation of the law, we forged ahead despite the fact we took this case on contingency and ran the risk of working thousands of hours with no compensation. Everyone’s hard work, including amici curiae’s has been vindicated on this day.

Media coverage: SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle) "High court says county records must be accessible"

Dean Wallraff is vice-chair of the Angeles Chapter's Legal Committee.

Photo: Sample GIS maps obtained by Sierra Club Angeles Chapter. Credit: Angeles Chapter GIS Committee

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