PUBLIC INFORMATIONA judge has ruled that the California Public Records Act does not require Orange County to release its
digital mapping system at little or no cost, reports Ronald Campbell in the Orange County Register's OC Watchdog blog. The decision allows the
county to continue to charge thousands of dollars to users of the
Landbase parcel map system.

The Sierra Club said it may appeal the ruling by Orange County
Superior Court Judge James J. DiCesare. The club had sought low-cost
access to the system so it could use the county’s maps in its
conservation campaigns.

contains the precise boundaries of  all 640,000 taxable parcels in the
county — every house, office building, store and bit of unimproved land.
It’s a Geographic Information Systems, or GIS,  which means those
parcel boundaries can be used with other computerized maps displaying
slope, earthquake and landslide hazard zones, watersheds, wildlife
corridors and hundreds of other themes.

Its precision and ease of use with other GIS maps makes Landbase
valuable to developers and environmentalists alike.

And it’s pricey. The county charges $1 per parcel for Landbase data
with a cost break after the first 100,000 parcels. The club said the
county asked $375,000 for a license to the entire Landbase system,
though the Orange County Fire Authority apparently paid a mere $75,000
for its copy.

The club sought Landbase under the Public Records Act, which limits
the price to “the direct costs of duplication.”  In the case of
computerized data, that’s typically the cost of a few blank DVDs.

So the lawsuit boiled down to this:
whether Landbase is a public record, disclosable under CPRA,  or if it
is software, which is exempt from CPRA.

DiCesare ruled that it’s software.

“It appears that this is not a dispute over production of public
record but rather the form of the production and at what cost,” DiCesare
wrote in a 4-page opinion.  ”The
cost of production in GIS format includes a software licensing fee that
(the Sierra Club) may pay like all other GIS formatted information
requesters pay.”

Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition said
DiCesare’s ruling was “most unfortunate. The court clearly got it

Last year the Sixth District Court of Appeals in San Jose ruled
in a lawsuit brought by Scheer’s group that Santa Clara County had to
release its GIS under CPRA.

Santa Clara County had demanded $250,000 for its GIS data in 2006.  
Santa Clara raised the software exemption at trial, where it lost, but
based its appeal on other grounds — national security, copyright and
CPRA’s “catchall exemption.”

We should note that Freedom Communications, The Register’s parent,
signed a court brief in the Santa Clara case siding with the First
Amendment Coalition.

The GIS dispute is the second big O.C. public records fight where
county officials have declined to release information deemed public by
judges elsewhere in the state.

The Orange County Employee Retirement System is resisting
a CPRA request
for the names of county retirees collecting at least
$100,000 annually.  Judges in Contra Costa and Stanislaus counties have
ruled that data is public.

Not in Orange County, the folks at OCERS say.