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Open records victory in Santa Clara County

The Merc’s John Woolfolk reports that Santa Clara County has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit over the county’s attempt to charge astronomically high fees for access to the county’s electronic maps.

It’s the largest payment of its kind in a California public records dispute, experts told the Merc.

The money was paid this week to the California First Amendment Coalition to cover its legal bills in the three-year fight.

The maps — including aerial photographs, jurisdictional boundaries, assessor parcel information, streets and buildings — are free in other counties, but Santa Clara County wanted to charge as much as $250,000 for the countywide data.

The county decided to settle after 6th District U.S. Court of Appeal rejected the county’s arguments in a February ruling.

Among the arguments the court rejected:

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the $500,000 judgment should serve as a warning to all government officials that they may pay a steep price for stiffing the public on records requests.

“It sends a very, very clear message that if they ignore their obligations under our open government laws, they better treat that as a real liability,” Scheer said.

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