California Supreme Court Rules that Orange County Must Provide GIS Data to the Public for a Nominal Fee Under the Public Records Act

July 11, 2013  - By 33 Comments

The Sierra Club announced that the California Supreme Court ruled 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.

According to the announcement, 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.

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. Today, 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 reported that the 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.

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, the 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.

Ms. 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.”

This article is tagged with and posted in GIS News, Mobile Devices
Eric Gakstatter

About the Author:

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as a consultant with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributing editor to GPS World magazine and the Geospatial Solutions website. He is the editor of Geospatial Solutions Monthly, a weekly newsletter focused on geospatial technologies. Follow Eric on Twitter at @GPSGIS_Eric.

33 Comments on "California Supreme Court Rules that Orange County Must Provide GIS Data to the Public for a Nominal Fee Under the Public Records Act"

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  1. Kris says:

    One grey area of this discussion deals with private companies who seek publicly funded, produced and maintained datasets (like parcels)and then in turn sell the data to other entities for profit. The example/case from above credits the sierra club as using the data in their operations, not directly reselling the acquired information for profit. It seems many local governments make this distinction and offer both single use and commercial use licensing (Orange County seems to have been an exception). Should there be a difference?

    • Eric Gakstatter Eric Gakstatter says:

      I think if the data is openly available to everyone, then a entity that strictly resells public data won’t have much of a position and it won’t be a sustainable business model. But, if they add value to the data and incorporate into their offering, I don’t see any problem with it. I don’t think there should be a distinction between single use and commercial use, except the commercial users will likely require more customer service from the data provider, which they should pay for.

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