URISA Notes the California Supreme Court’s Decision in Orange County Case
On Monday, July 8, the California Supreme Court ruled that Orange County must provide spatial databases to outside parties in their original form as complete electronic databases, such as a geodatabase, rather than simply in a readable version, such as a printed copy or a PDF file. The Court also decided that the data must be provided for the cost of distribution, rejecting the County’s policy of licensing the data at market prices in an attempt to recover part of the cost of data production. Specifically, the Court said, “Because the [Orange County] Landbase is not excluded from the definition of a public record under section 6254.9(b), and because the County does not argue that the database is otherwise exempt from disclosure, the County must produce the OC Landbase in response to Sierra Club’s request ‘in any electronic format in which it holds the information’ (§ 6253.9(a)(1)) at a cost not to exceed the direct cost of duplication (§§ 6253.9(a)(2), 6253, subd. (b)).”
URISA welcomes any decision that increases the availability of geospatial data for public use. As noted by URISA Past President Greg Babinski 18 months ago, it is URISA’s policy that all units of government should freely provide the means for their citizens to fully participate in their own governance by publishing and otherwise supplying geospatial data to all interested parties. We recognize that the laws governing public records vary from state to state and that some states have provisions in their statutes to authorize state and local government agencies to recover part of the cost of data creation and maintenance through licensing fees. The California Supreme Court has ruled that California is not such a state, thereby clarifying what had been an ambiguous policy situation. As the Court itself said, “the legislative history of section 6253.9 reveals no clear answer to the question before us.” Thus, the Court provided the required policy clarification by applying the direction contained in Article I, Section 3(b)(2) of the California Constitution, which says, “A statute, court rule, or other authority, including those in effect on the effective date of this subdivision, shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people’s right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access.”
URISA continues to support appropriate funding for governmental geospatial programs and recognizes that there are multiple acceptable mechanisms for such funding. The decision in the California case is based on the policy choices and laws of that state. Other state and local governments may legitimately adopt different policies and funding mechanisms, but it is the policy of URISA that no such funding mechanism should interfere with the rights of the governed to participate in their governance. Where state statutes allow data sales for commercial reuse, URISA encourages state and local government agencies to nevertheless provide other data maintenance funding mechanisms in order to ensure the ready availability of public data. URISA’s Advocacy Agenda supports the nationwide development of high quality, publicly accessible geospatial data. The value of such data increases with its availability.
For further comment from the URISA Board of Directors, contact: J. Allison Butler, AICP, CMS, President of URISA, firstname.lastname@example.org