Sunshine in the digital age - Page 2

Information created by public agencies using public data should be public

And the computers could automatically generate a list of the documents being withheld, so the public could find out what records are remaining out of view.

Over time, old paper records could be scanned and put on the site, too. And with electronic storage so cheap these days, there's no reason why all public records can't be preserved in an accessible form and location.

The County of Santa Clara a few years back began putting together a valuable data trove that included all of the county's real estate and property ownership records. That allowed for the creation of a geographic information system that could be used to track property sales, taxes, crime rates, building permit applications, and much more. A wonderful public service — except that the county didn't offer it to the public. The data was for sale, for more than $100,000 a license.

It took a lawsuit by the California First Amendment Coalition to force the county to back off and make the data public. But that's just an example of a trend that's cropping up all over the country: governments are developing ways to make more use of information — and then are trying to copyright it, sell it, and make money.

The problem with that, as attorney Rachel Matteo-Boehm, who handled the CFAC case, points out, is that it segregates access to information by wealth. The rich get the tools of technology to understand and use public data; the poor don't.

It's a dangerous trend and the Legislature should address it right away. Information created by public agencies using public data should be public — no excuses, no exceptions. And if the software that makes it easy to process that information is created by the public sector (or under contract to the public sector) the public needs free access to it.

The Legislature also needs to shoot down a series of attempts by the secrecy lobbyists to cut off access to new types of data. A bill now before the Assembly, AB 1978 by Assemblymember Jose Solorio (D-Anaheim), would exempt certain types of information from the Public Records Act. The bill appears to be aimed at overturning the Santa Clara decision but could also address an issue that has come up in San Francisco: that of so-called metadata in public documents.

Metadata is embedded information that may be in a file that doesn't appear when the file is printed out. The City Attorney's Office has been arguing that metadata isn't public. That's nonsense — it's part of a public document, created at public expense by public employees. The Legislature needs to reject this bill — and instead pass a law that would specifically require agencies to release any internal data that's created as part of a public record.

The San Francisco Sunshine Task Force is in the process of updating and improving the city's landmark law, and it should seek to incorporate some of the suggestions above.

The Task Force also needs to be sure that the amendments to the law give that oversight body the teeth it needs to enforce public-access requirements. Far too often, city officials simply ignore task force findings, and, as Sarah Phelan reports on page 17, the Ethics Commission and the district attorney rarely follow up with sanctions.

For starters, the task force should have the right to subpoena documents and witnesses (without first asking the supervisors for approval — a cumbersome process). The panel should have its own full-time legal counsel. It should also have increased enforcement power: while giving the task force the right to levy fines and sanctions is politically tricky, a provision that allows the task force to order the release of documents — backed up with the full support of the City Attorney's Office — ought to be part of the final package.