Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, July 9, 2013


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S.C. Says Mapping Database Not Exempt From Public Records Act

Justice Liu, Writing for Unanimous Court, Cites Proposition 59’s Rule of Narrowness




A geographic information system database is not “computer software” exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

“We hold that although GIS mapping software falls within the ambit of this statutory exclusion, a GIS-formatted database like the OC Landbase does not,” Justice Goodwin H. Liu wrote for the high court. “Accordingly, such databases are public records that, unless otherwise exempt, must be produced upon request at the actual cost of duplication.”

The high court reversed a 2011 decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Div. Three, which ruled, as did the trial court, that the database  fell under the software exemption. The OC Landbase is a parcel-level digital basemap identifying over 640,000 parcels of land, with their boundaries, assessor numbers, and street addresses, with links to the names and addresses of the owners and other information.

Court Rulings

Under the lower court rulings, the county was able to charge substantial fees for the use of the database and impose restrictions on its disclosure and distribution. As a public record, the county will have to make it available to anyone willing to pay the costs of duplication, which in the case of computer data is minimal, and could not restrict the uses that the party obtaining it makes of it.

The Orange County Register reported on its OC Watchdog blog that the county charges $1 per parcel for Landbase data, up to 100,000 parcels, and a lesser amount for the remaining data. The Sierra Club said the county wanted $375,000 for a license to the entire Landbase system, though the Orange County Fire Authority was apparently able to obtain a copy for $75,000.

The Sierra Club’s request that the county produce the database as a public record was rejected under Government Code Sec. 6254.9, the CPRA exemption for “computer software developed by a state or local agency,” including “computer mapping systems.” Orange Superior Court Judge James J. Di Cesare ruled that the exemption applied and denied the group’s writ petition.

Legislative History

Justice Raymond Ikola, writing for the Court of Appeal, cited legislative history and said the county was correct. The current wording of the exemption, he explained, was enacted in 1988 specifically to permit the City of San Jose to recoup the cost of developing its computer graphing systems.

The Sierra Club’s contrary argument, that the OC Landbase isn’t a computer mapping system because it contains no programs, would render the 1988 amendment both meaningless and superfluous, Ikola said.

Liu, however, in his opinion for the court yesterday, cited 2004’s Proposition 59, a state constitutional amendment requiring that exemptions from open government laws be interpreted narrowly.

He rejected the Court of Appeal’s characterization of the reasons for the 1988 amendment, which replaced the term “computer readable data bases” with “computer mapping systems.”  San Jose’s explanatory memorandum, relied on by the lower courts, is not a “reliable indication” of what the Legislature intended because nothing in the legislative history shows that lawmakers considered it, the justice said.

Since neither the text of the legislation nor the legislative history gives a clear answer to the question of whether the Legislature intended GIS and similar databases to be exempt, the constitutional presumption of access controls, Liu reasoned.

Public Record Definition

“[W]e find nothing in the text, statutory context, or legislative history of the term ‘computer mapping system’ that allows us to say the Legislature clearly sought to exclude GIS-formatted parcel data from the definition of a public record when it can be disclosed without any accompanying software.  Applying the interpretive rule set forth in [Proposition 59] we must conclude that section 6254.9(b)’s exclusion of ‘computer mapping systems’ from the definition of a public record does not encompass a parcel database in a GIS file format.”

Liu added that the court’s holding is consistent with a 2005 attorney general’s opinion, noting expert testimony that 47 counties in the state provide GIS data as public records, including 19 that changed their policies in response to the opinion.

Numerous organizations representing academia, open-government advocates, the media and the software industry filed amicus briefs supporting the Sierra Club in the case, while the League of California Cities, California Association of Counties and California Assessors’ Association supported the county.

The case is Sierra Club v. Superior Court (County of Orange), 13 S.O.S. 3422.


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