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California county pays $500,000 in map data dispute

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  1. Freedom of Information
Santa Clara County must pay a nonprofit watchdog group $500,000 to cover its legal fees after a three-year dispute over…

Santa Clara County must pay a nonprofit watchdog group $500,000 to cover its legal fees after a three-year dispute over whether the county could withhold or charge extremely high fees for electronic maps that were sought during a public records request, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

Government watchdogs say the payment of the California First Amendment Coalition’s legal fees, which follows an appeals court order to disclose the map data, could be the largest payout awarded in a California records disclosure dispute to date.

“[The $500,000 judgment] sends a very, very clear message that if [governments] ignore their obligations under our open government laws, they better treat that as a real liability,” Peter Scheer, executive director of CFAC, told the Mercury News.

The California First Amendment Coalition sued Santa Clara in June 2006 after it failed to provide its global imaging system basemap in its response to a California Public Records Act request. The county said the maps were not subject to open records requests because they were protected by a federal homeland security law. Once forced to disclose the maps, the county said it would cost $250,000 to cover the fees associated with data collection and the copyright process, despite the fact that 14 California counties provide the maps for free and 23 California counties charge only the cost of duplication, the Mercury News reported.

In February, the California Court of Appeals refused to apply the federal homeland security law and unanimously affirmed the superior court’s decision that the maps should be released, noting that the county had sold the map data to other Private and public entities.

“The County sold the GIS basemap to 18 purchasers, including three private entities. In the trial court’s view: ‘If the security issue were of greater importance, one would think there would be no dissemination of the GIS basemap whatever.’ We see no reasoned basis for overturning that inference,” Judge Richard McAdams wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.

The court likewise rejected the county’s copyright argument and remanded the case back to the trial court to consider the question of costs.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the California First Amendment Coalition.