When Reasonable Copy Costs Aren’t Reasonable: Santa Clara County’s Settlement Over Excessive Costs for Public Records

Government agencies commonly charge reasonable fees to reproduce public records as necessary to cover their copy costs and search time.  But what happens when these costs are prohibitively expensive?  Santa Clara County recently paid a $500,000 settlement for legal fees after fighting a First Amendment Coalition lawsuit which challenged the excessive prices the county charged for Geographic Information System (GIS) maps, a public record available from most counties for free or for a nominal fee.  In Santa Clara County, fulfilling a public records request for GIS maps for the entire county would have incurred approximately $250,000 in costs.  The maps, which collect information including aerial photographs, jurisdictional boundaries, assessed parcel boundaries, streets, utility lines and waterway maps, are most often needed for use by the government.  However, reasonable production costs are still necessary because academic researchers, real estate companies, utility companies and journalists have potential use for them as well. To learn more about the lawsuit and settlement, see this article from the San Jose Mercury News.

And to find out more about GIS map availability in the rest of California, click here for links to each county's GIS information page.