Wednesday, October 5, 2005
Assessor’s Electronic Map Data Subject to Disclosure Under California Public Records Act, A.G. Opines
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Map data on parcel boundaries maintained by a county assessor in electronic format are subject to the disclosure requirements of the California Public Records Act, Attorney General Bill Lockyer has said.
In a formal opinion issued Monday, Lockyer said disclosure is required under Government Code Sec. 6253.9, enacted in 2000. The statute, he noted, was intended to “address the increasingly widespread use of government documents that are produced in an electronic format.”
Sec. 6253.9 provides that “any agency that has information that constitutes an identifiable public record not exempt from disclosure pursuant to this chapter that is in an electronic format shall make that information available in an electronic format when requested by any person....”
The provisions of the statute are “[c]onsistent” with the “broad” definition of a writing in Government Code Sec. 6252(g), Lockyer said. That section, he noted, defines a writing to include “any handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, photocopying, transmitting by electronic mail or facsimile, and every other means of recording upon any tangible thing any form of communication or representation, including letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combinations thereof, and any record thereby created, regardless of the manner in which the record has been stored.”
The attorney general declared:
“It is apparent from the provisions of sections 6252 and 6253.9 that parcel boundary map data maintained by a county assessor in an electronic format is subject to inspection and copying by members of the public unless some exemption applies allowing nondisclosure.”
Lockyer said two exemptions were arguably applicable. Sec. 6254.9 exempts “computer software,” including “computer mapping systems,” from disclosure under the CPRA, while Sec. 6254(k) provides that records need not be provided to the public if “disclosure...is exempted or prohibited pursuant to federal or state law.”
The exemptions, however, must be “strictly construed in favor of disclosure,” the attorney general noted, citing City of Hemet v. Superior Court (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 1411.
The mapping software exemption, Lockyer explained, “does not refer to or include basic maps and boundary information per se (i.e., the basic data compiled, updated, and maintained by county assessors), but rather denotes unique computer programs to process such data using mapping functions — original programs that have been designed and produced by a public agency.”
Sec. 6254(k) simply incorporates into the CPRA disclosure provisions codified elsewhere, Lockyer observed. He noted that Revenue and Taxation Code Sec. 408(a) provides that, subject to certain exceptions, “any information and records in the assessor’s office that are not required by law to be kept or prepared by the assessor...are not public documents and shall not be open to public inspection.”
But Revenue and Taxation Code Sec. 408.3 makes “property characteristics information maintained by the assessor” a “public record subject to inspection,” the attorney general pointed out, while Revenue and Taxation Code Sec. 327 provides that assessment parcel maps “shall at all times be publicly displayed in the office of the assessor.” He also noted that county assessors are required by Revenue and Taxation Code Secs. 601, 602(b), and 1255 to maintain an assessment roll including a legal description of all land subject to assessment.
“Because county assessors are required by law to prepare and keep parcel maps and corresponding boundary information, indexed to parcel identification numbers, such records do not come within the exemption language of Revenue and Taxation Code section 408, subdivision (a),” Lockyer reasoned, adding:
“To be sure, no provision of law dictates that a county assessor must keep this required parcel boundary map data in an electronic format; rather, the choice to do so lies within the discretion of each assessor. But once such a format has been selected, the material must be made available for public inspection, and copies of the data, in the electronic format in which it is held, must be provided upon request. Section 6253.9 asks only whether a public agency has information constituting a public record ‘in an electronic format’ — not whether a statute dictates the use of such a format.”
The CPRA requires the data to be made available “promptly” upon request, but permits the assessor to charge a fee equal to the “direct cost” of copying it, Lockyer said. If the request comes other than at the time the county ordinarily compiles or produces the information, the costs associated with doing that can also be charged to the individual or entity making the request, he said.
The opinion was prepared for Lockyer by Deputy Attorney General Daniel G. Stone. It was requested by Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-Santa Rosa.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company