Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 24, 2014

California Supreme Court Finds GIS Mapping is a Public Record Subject to Public Disclosure

The Sierra Club commenced an action after attempting to obtain a copy of the Orange County Landbase, a GIS-formatted database of properties in Orange County, under the California Public Records Act. Orange County officials had offered to provide the Sierra Club with the underlying records contained in the Landbase, in electronic PDF form or as printed copies, but refused to disclose the information in a GIS file format unless the Sierra Club paid a licensing fee for the document, and agreed to license restrictions on disclosure and distribution. The County argued that it was entitled to charge the licensing fee because the GIS file was not a public record, and so the County had a right to restrict access and to recover a portion of the cost it had incurred in developing and maintaining the Landbase.

The Sierra Club sued to compel the County to release the document. The Superior Court denied the Sierra Club’s petition, on the grounds that the Landbase was exempt from disclosure as “computer software,” a term which “includes computer mapping systems,” according to the Court. The Court of Appeal affirmed, and the Sierra Club appealed to the Supreme Court. Numerous amici curiae, including a variety of media and open-government groups, also joined in the litigation, arguing among other things that “public dissemination of GIS-formatted mapping data is . . . critical to the non-profit sector’s ability to monitor and response to government actions involving real property.” The Court also pointed out that 47 of California’s 58 counties already provided access to GIS-formatted parcel base maps as public records.

On appeal, the California Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether a GIS-mapping file was a “computer mapping system” which qualified for a “computer software” exemption from disclosure under the California Public Records Act. In its analysis, the Court noted that the County had stipulated that all of the information contained within the GIS files was a public record subject to disclosure. Thus, the Court noted that “the format of information is not generally determinative of the public record status of government information.” Further, the Court defined “software” and a computer “system,” ultimately finding that a GIS file which would be read on the Sierra Club’s own software program did not fall under the definitions of “software” or a computer “system.” Had the Sierra Club requested the GIS program that the County used to create or view the Landbase, the Court held that the program would have been exempt as software. Given the rule in California that a statute limiting public access to information should be construed narrowly, while a statute granting public access should be construed broadly, the Court held that the GIS files contained in the Landbase were not a “computer mapping system” or “software” and thus subject to disclosure. For all of those reasons, the Court reversed the decisions of the courts below, and found in favor of the Sierra Club.

Sierra Club v. Superior Court of Orange County, 302 P.3d 1026 (Cal. 7/8/13)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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