In a blow for freedom, the California Supreme Court ruled that Orange County’s exemption from public records law is illegal.
The case stems from a request to Orange County by the Sierra Club for access to their computerized satellite mapping system. The system, which cost millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, was originally offered to the Sierra Club for a third of a million dollars. The Club refused, saying that the database is a public record and, therefore the county should follow the California Public Records law in making it available at cost.
Lower courts aligned with the county and ruled against the Sierra Club who then took the issue to the California Supreme Court. In ruling for the Sierra Club, the court said Orange County must provide access to the system at the actual cost of duplication.
We hold that although GIS mapping software falls within the ambit of this statutory exclusion, a GIS-formatted database likethe OC Landbase does not. Accordingly, such databases are public records that, unless otherwise exempt, must be produced upon request at the actual cost of duplication.
While this ruling specifically addresses a single public record it should, by inference, affect access to all public records in the state. That is good news for the media in general.
In a public records case last year, the city of Anaheim resisted a request for archived emails from city records. When pressed by the Voice of OC, the city then attempted to extract a $19,000 fee for reconstructing the records which had been deleted. Voice of OC and Californians Aware threatened a lawsuit in that case. The emails were allegedly destroyed in response to the Voice of OC’s request.
The City of Tustin has been particularly generous in granting access to public records. In one case where the number of records requested by Our Town Tustin resulted in several binders of information, we were given access in the City Clerk’s foyer rather than insist on charging for duplication. So, while this ruling may not do much for us directly, it will certainly insure the doors remain open for future access.