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Opinion: The Santa Clara Public Records Lawsuit Decision Is Good for Surveyors

October 27, 2009
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A three-year lawsuit to enforce California's Public Record Act (PRA) finally concluded in late August with Santa Clara County substantially reducing the price it charges for its digital parcel basemap. While some surveyors may still argue that their private stash of control monuments is their source of revenue, most today acknowledge that compiling this information in a supervised manner and sharing it benefits everyone a lot more.

A three-year lawsuit to enforce California's Public Record Act (PRA) finally concluded in late August with Santa Clara County reducing the price it charges for its digital parcel basemap to $3.10. The GIS parcels, for which the county had been charging $158,000, are now available at the cost of duplication as required by the PRA.

The lawsuit, filed by the California First Amendment Coalition in October 2006, sought access to the parcel basemap a year after California's Attorney General wrote a legal opinion that digital parcel data is public record. The county used many arguments in trying to preserve its ability to sell its data, including homeland security ("it is Protected Critical Infrastructure Information"), copyright ("we own it and we can control the terms of its use") and public interest ("without sales revenue, we can't continue to maintain the data").

The trial court rejected all these arguments in May 2007, and the Court of Appeal rejected them again-unanimously-in February 2009. The courts ruled that the county misinterpreted the Homeland Security Act of 2002 [6 USC 133 (a) (c)] when it tried to prevent access to its parcels as if they were "critical infrastructure information." (The act pertains to the receiver of information, the Department of Homeland Security, not the originator, the county.) The courts ruled that there is no statutory basis either for copyrighting the GIS basemap or for conditioning its release on a licensing agreement. And, noting that 44 of California's 58 counties provide their GIS basemaps in compliance with the PRA (free or at the cost of duplication), they ruled that public interest in disclosure outweighs the county's interest in nondisclosure.

These are "first impression" decisions that set precedent in California case law, but why are they important to surveyors? While GIS basemap parcels are not the accurate and authoritative documents that surveyors use (such as records of survey, corner records, plat maps and tract maps), this case confirms the principle that government agencies cannot charge profit-making prices nor otherwise restrict their use with licensing agreements. When a government agency uses information to make a decision, that information must be made equally available to any interested citizen. The underlying principle is essential to our democracy: Government must be accountable to the people. That means government actions must be "transparent," and the data used to inform those actions must be accessible.

Aside from such "good government" arguments, there are also many incidental benefits to the public from access to public data such as GIS parcels:
  • Sharing data among government agencies reduces the cost to taxpayers and can result in better and more efficient decision making.
  • Use of the data by private parties often results in economic benefit to the jurisdiction and even increased tax revenues to the local government.
  • Working with a county's authoritative and consistent survey control and monument information enables surveyors to provide the best products for their clients at an efficient cost.
While some surveyors may still argue that their private stash of control monuments is their source of revenue, most today acknowledge that compiling this information in a supervised manner and sharing it benefits everyone a lot more. Using GIS basemaps to locate control monuments helps to preserve them during construction projects, and it gives everyone a common base on which to plan, design and build. Now this kind of information will be more easily accessible and usable by surveyors.


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