California Supreme Court finds GIS Database Subject to Disclosure Under the PRA

Geographic Information Systems (“GIS”) are software programs that can capture, analyze and present geographic data.  Think google maps on steroids.  Maps, statistics and other geographic data.  Local governments use GIS in connection with their planning decisions.  When a city council or planning commission makes a zoning or building decision, more often than not, city staff presents them with a presentation of GIS data.  In June 2007, the Sierra Club requested that the Orange County Assessor produce a GIS database, known as “OC Landbase” pursuant to the California Public Records Act.  The County initially declined stating that unless the Sierra Club had a GIS license and paid a fee, the data need not be disclosed.  The Sierra Club disagreed and requested that the database be provided at the cost of duplication and without a license agreement.  The issue wound its way through the California court system.  Today, the California Supreme Court ruled that the GIS database is not exempt from disclosure and that the database must be disclosed in response to a request under the Public Records Act request.  You can read the decision in Sierra Club v. Superior Court (July 8, 2013 S194708) here.  For those involved in Public Records Act litigation, today’s opinion offered additional confirmation of the obligation of the Court’s to broadly construe the Public Records Act in favor of disclosure:

The PRA and the California Constitution provide the public with a right of access to government information. As this court has explained: ―Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy. Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.

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