Last month, the state Legislature and the governor — thanks to some prodding from an outraged public — came to the defense of the state Public Records Act by removing budget-cutting provisions that would have neutered key aspects of the act. Last week, it was the state Supreme Court's turn to play the hero.
In a closely watched case that could determine how significant a role the Public Records Act plays in an age of complex, computerized information systems, the court struck an important blow for transparency.
The case centered on a computerized mapping system used by Orange County, and many other counties, that allows users to create a layered digital map containing information — parcel numbers, street addresses, geographic boundaries and links to much more information — about all the parcels in the county.
County maps have long been regarded as public information and, thanks to state law, the public has been entitled to obtain copies at a reasonable cost. But Orange County argued that because it had helped develop the system that it was entitled, under a software exemption in state law, to charge upward of tens of thousands of dollars for copies of its base maps.
That's what the Sierra Club encountered when it attempted to obtain duplicates of the maps while researching whether open space areas were protected from development by conservation easements or public ownership or were threatened by a development. The county offered to provide the files if the group paid a licensing fee and agreed to the license's restrictions on disclosure — a requirement that essentially would have blocked the Sierra Club from sharing the data with the public.
With a host of media organizations, including the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the First Amendment Coalition, backing them, the members of Sierra Club sued, arguing that the maps should be available to the public and at a reasonable cost.
In a unanimous decision last week, the Supreme Court agreed, reversing a lower court decision. "To the extent that the term 'computer mapping system,' is ambiguous, the constitutional canon requires us to interpret it in a way that maximizes the public's access to information," the court ruled.
Last month, the state Legislature tried to push through a budget trailer bill that would have left it to the discretion of cities and counties whether to abide by key provisions of the Public Records Act. When the public responded with outrage, the Legislature not only reversed course, the governor pledged to support a constitutional amendment making clear that compliance with the Public Records Act would not be held captive to a public agency's discretion or budgetary situation.
In this case, the state Supreme Court made clear that public access, at least for now, still reigns supreme even as our information systems get more complex and more expensive.
Both stand as important victories in defense of openness and the spirit of the California Public Records Act.