Municipalities Violated Open Records Law by Providing PDF of Property Assessment Records and Not Allowing Access to Database

WIREdata, Inc. v. Village of Sussex, 729 N.W.2d 757 (Wis. Ct. App. 2007)

In this open records case, WIREdata, Inc. had filed open records requests with three municipalities seeking property assessment records in the format created and maintained by the municipalities’ independent contractor assessors in a computer database.  The court held that the open records law allowed WIREdata the opportunity to access that database in order to examine and copy the property assessment records, and that the municipalities committed open records law violations when they denied WIREdata such access and instead provided it with a “PDF,” or portable document file.

Regarding the format of the municipalities’ responses, the court quoted from Kenneth J. Withers’ article, Electronically Stored Information:  The December 2006 Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 4 NW. J. TECH. & INTELL. PROP. 171, 188 (Spring 2006).  The court explained:

The municipalities and their independent contractor assessors comment that the PDF, essentially a photocopy of an electronic document viewed as a picture on a computer screen, is an electronic file that permits WIREdata to cut and paste the assessment information.  They miss the point.  The municipalities and assessors do not input the data into or maintain the assessment records in a PDF. . . .  Instead, the municipalities and their assessors maintain the assessment data in a Microsoft Access database which runs off of the Market Drive software.  Jones tells us that WIREdata may request access to this database for purposes of examination and copying of the source data.

The organization and compilation of the data into the Microsoft Access database, done at public expense, allows greater ease of public access to the public assessment information.  In keeping with the letter and spirit of the open records law, we will not allow the municipalities to deny WIREdata, and others who seek the information, the value-added benefit of this computerization.  As we wrote in Jones:

As technology advances and computer systems are refined, it would be sadly ironic if courts could disable Wisconsin’s open records law by limiting its reach. . . .  A potent open records law must remain open to technological advances so that its statutory terms remain true to the law’s intent.

(Citations and footnotes omitted.)

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