Paper records aren’t enough; computer tapes must be offered
NEW JERSEY — A computer-readable copy of the Essex County property tax assessment list must be provided to the public at a reasonable cost, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, in Trenton ruled in late September.
The court said the common law, but not New Jersey’s Right-to-Know law, requires that the records be available in electronic format if that is the way they are requested.
Two information services in Elizabeth and an appraisal business in Springfield, all of whom serve clients who are real estate brokers, appraisers and attorneys, asked the Essex County Board of Taxation for copies of the computer-readable property tax assessments from Essex County, N.J., in early 1991. Essex County agreed to provide paper records but refused to copy the magnetic tapes containing the information.
The information companies sued in November 1991 in superior court in Newark. They said that the New Jersey Right-to-Know Law, which requires disclosure of records “required to be kept,” applies to the computer tapes.
However, the trial court in March 1993 held that the computerization of the records is “merely a convenience” and the board could withhold the computer tape version, it said.
The appeals court agreed that the Right-to- Know law did not apply because there was no legal requirement that the records be maintained in computerized format.
However, the appeals court said that the common law definition of “public record” encompasses almost every document recorded, generated or produced by public officials, whether or not required by law. In computerizing the tax assessment lists, the government had created a public record, the appellate judges ruled.
Under the common law, agencies must permit access to public records unless a strong privacy interest applies. The government argued that there was a privacy interest in the computerized records — Disclosure of the addresses on tape could subject homeowners to “commercial exploitation ranging from the mass marketing of aluminum siding, swimming pools or pornography” to any other solicitation, the government argued.
However, the court ruled that no privacy interest exists in the computerized information because it is already public in paper form.
(Higg-A-Rella, Inc. v. County of Essex; Counsel: Robert Blau, Springfield)