After losing a ruling in Orange County Superior Court, the Sierra Club is turning to the California Court of Appeal in an attempt to win no- or low-cost access to the County of Orange's Landbase parcel map system, which the public must currently pay thousands of dollars to get to.
The lower court on Aug. 9 handed down a final decision that granted Orange County an exemption from the California Public Records Act (PRA) when it comes to public access to the what is also known as the Geographic Information System (GIS) parcel basemap database.
The county claimed its Oracle-based "OC Landbase" database is a GIS database, and that GIS databases are part of "computer mapping systems" and therefore, they are exempt under PRA Section 6254.9 that excludes software from the public record.
Trial Judge James J. DiCesare agreed with the county in his initial May ruling and final August decision, noting Section 6254.9 states "'computer software' includes computer mapping systems, computer programs, and computer graphics systems."
Slam dunk, right? Not so fast, argues the Sierra Club appeal filed on Aug. 27. The ecological stewards allege "faulty reasoning" went into DiCesare's interpretation of Section 6254.9. Other authorities have held that "computer software" means just that and not software plus data, states the appeal. And "computer mapping system" shows up no where in the PRA anyway, argues the Sierra Club.
The county has gone beyond the exemption written in 1988 to include hardware, software, data, applications, and management of GIS technology, the Sierra Club further charges. And DiCesare's interpretation, the club claims, "does considerable violence to the plain meaning of the statute, goes against the Legislature's intent as evidenced by the legislative history, and clashes with the public policy of liberal disclosure as contained in the California Constitution and the Public Records Act itself."
The Sierra Club cites a recent Court of Appeal decision requiring Santa Clara County to provide its GIS parcel basemap to the First Amendment Coalition, stating, "the holding--that Santa Clara cannot claim copyright protection under Section 6254.9 for its GIS basemap because the GIS basemap is not software--is dependent on that trial court's finding that the GIS basemap is not software."
Orange Countians need relatively painless access to the GIS database so they can determine if their property taxes are being assessed fairly or their zoning variance applications are being handled uniformly across the region.
"To keep our government agencies accountable to us," the Sierra Club states in an announcement, "the data that government agencies use to make their decisions must be available to the public so we can challenge the decisions, if necessary. That is the purpose of the California Public Record Act."
The Sierra Club uses GIS parcel data such as the OC Landbase to analyze and map land opportunities for its conservation campaigns, including its "Open Spaces, Wild Places" plan to preserve open space in Orange County.
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And so, it will be up to the Court of Appeal to decide whose interpretation of the PRA is correct: the county's or the club's.
"The trial court's ruling that the County's parcel data is software under the Public Records Act goes against all previous legal authority," according to the Sierra Club's Dean Wallraff. "The Sierra Club expects the Court of Appeal to reverse the decision, and make it clear that 'software' means software, not data."
Organizations interested in filing "Friend of the Court" (amicus curiae) briefs can email Wallraff at email@example.com.
If you want to take a gander at official case documents, go to calpubrec.org/oclawsuit/appeal.