Local Governments License Public Information In Order To Charge Exorbitant Fees
Every journalism student at the University of Missouri is taught that the state has pretty good laws governing access to public information. After all, public agencies — according to the state’s Sunshine Law — can only charge the cost of reproduction for the information requested.
This openness is crucial to individuals who care about good government. For example, reporters can search campaign contribution reports for evidence of quid pro quo arrangements. The past three papers I have written at the Show-Me Institute relied entirely on information obtained from government entities: school superintendent contracts and salary information, meeting minutes for the Saint Louis land bank, and internal correspondence among public officials regarding the Aerotropolis tax credit proposal.
But open public records are important to others, as well. Consider the number of government records needed to say, start a business. You might want information about who owns property in your area, which would come from the local assessor’s office. You might want to know what zoning restrictions are in your area, information you could get from the local planning and zoning department. And so on.
So, I was shocked to learn that county governments routinely charge thousands of dollars for a single dataset.
For example, the Kansas City government charges $6,595 for its property database. This file is necessary in order to determine who owns what property in Kansas City, where properties are located, how much owners pay in taxes, and what land parcels are used for. This information is the most basic information necessary for someone interested in local tax or development issues.
But it doesn’t cost Kansas City $6,595 to make a copy of its database. And the state sunshine law says that charges for computer files should only include duplication costs. So how does Kansas City justify charging so much for this data?
When it comes to public information that can be mapped, local governments can license that public information, making it no longer public, and can then charge an exorbitant amount for that information.
Here’s how it works, broadly:
1. State law allows local governments to close and then license public information if that information has a geospatial component — that is, if the information describes where the property is located.
2. The local government agency then “closes” the previously public information and sets license fees.
3. Individuals or companies who pay the license fees agree to terms that prohibit them from providing that information to others. For example, I had to sign a data licensing agreement with an assessor in order to receive information that, except for the state’s weird licensing law, is unarguably public. The agreement states that “…data obtained…may not be reproduced, for any purpose, without the prior, express written consent…”
So, this state law restricts public information so that local governments can charge exorbitant fees. What could possibly be the argument for such a policy?
The argument for charging such large fees is that the software used to maintain this data is expensive. I won’t argue that point. But this data would be maintained by local governments even if developers, engineers, reporters, and yes, think tank policy analysts, weren’t requesting it.
Maintaining geospatial data is a standard task of local government. Arguing that the associated costs should be included in the cost of providing data that can be easily copied with a few clicks of a mouse is akin to arguing that building and utility costs be included as well. The cost paid for information should reflect only the cost of reproducing that information — not infrastructure costs that are already paid for with tax revenues.
The law should be changed. There is no good reason for this law, and it serves only to stall or otherwise stop efforts to promote good, transparent government.