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Charting new legal ground, a New Britain, Conn., Superior Court judge has ruled that Greenwich’s $3 million Geographic Information System database of aerial photos and computerized maps is largely a public record, freely available under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Despite town arguments that the information would aid terrorists, kidnappers and burglars, New Britain Superior Court Judge Howard T. Owens Jr. concluded the system is “merely a computerized compilation” of public records currently available from individual town departments. As a convenience to the town, the records were combined so they can be accessed by one system, Owens noted, adding, “This convenience should also benefit the public.” His ruling is the first court test in a battle launched just weeks after 9/11 by Stamford entrepreneur and self-described “computer guy” Stephen Whitaker, who shocked Greenwich officials by asking to buy an electronic copy of nearly all the town’s data. It combines records from the tax, public works and safety departments integrated with highly detailed aerial photographs and maps. Claiming the documents contained valuable secrets and were exempt from FOIA disclosure on security grounds, the town’s information technology department refused Whitaker’s request. Town lawyer Haden P. Gerrish, in a Jan 25, 2002, hearing before the FOIC, called police chief Peter J. Robbins as a witness. The chief, a 31-year veteran of the force, recounted that jewel thieves had been known to consult the Social Register, a book available in libraries, to help choose targets. Also, would-be burglars have been known to case expensive homes on the Gold Coast shoreline town from rubber rafts. Access to detailed photos and maps showing lighting, fence lines, tree cover and utility locations could pose an even greater security threat from criminals, Robbins testified. Whitaker made his request on Dec. 10, 2001, and it was promptly denied. Robbins and Greenwich information technology director Boris Hutorin testified that terrorists might use the system to pinpoint emergency communications equipment, underground fiber optic cable lines and other potential targets. Hutorin said that computer hackers might be able to penetrate the town’s firewall defenses and delete existing data from the database or substitute false information, if public access were widely allowed. But in an impassioned closing argument before the FOIC, Whitaker called the geographical information system “the infrastructure, the structural steel of the new information economy.” The value of the system, he argued, depends on its openness: “The success of streamlining the efficiency of town government and public expenditure requires that not only that the data” reach the GIS but that it reaches the public, so that every surveyor, every land contractor, every road contractor and school can benefit from it. Hearing officer Mary E. Schwind ruled that the records Whitaker requested are not exempt, and the town should release them, except for any medical records or social security numbers they may contain. Greenwich appealed. Town attorney Gerrish argued the documents were exempt under an FOIA as “records of standards, procedures, processes, software and codes” and because they were trade secrets. In his December 30 ruling, Owens noted that, significantly, Whitaker “carefully requested those portions in the GIS database pertinent to orthophotography and tax assessments, which are public records” and not the entire database “which includes additional information that may not be for public disclosure.” Whitaker has acknowledged he may want to make a commercial service or product to help taxpayers contest property tax assessments. Clifton T. Leonhardt, chief counsel for the FOIC, noted in his brief that citizens need good data to evaluate or challenge their government. If the town has state-of-the-art technology, and the citizen has only outmoded tools, Leonhardt asked, “how can it be said that we have an effective Freedom of Information law, or more generally, an open government?” Judge Owens appeared to like that argument. He wrote that the fact a citizen could gain economic value from the electronic database is an argument for, not against, its disclosure. The town concedes the documents would be available through individual requests for paper maps, charts and photos, and Owens wrote that, with enough work, people could re-create the database from paper records. “Open government is not promoted when the public is required to sift through voluminous documents in various departments [when] the municipality can counter this by push button automation,” Owens wrote. The judge was not persuaded by Chief Robbins anecdotes about burglaries and speculation about terrorists. “There is no nexus between his opinion and the ultimate conclusion,” Owens wrote. Nor, he added, did the town present statistics or other explanation of how disclosure would “compromise the security or integrity of the GIS.” “Anxiety concerning public safety should not become a canard for creating an exemption,” he warned. And he branded the town’s claim that the GIS records were a trade secret as “at best specious.” Indeed, since trade secrets belong to private entities, to even “argue that a municipality can have a trade secret strains credulity.” But the trial judge’s dismissal isn’t the final word. Earlier this month, the town voted to appeal, in a groundbreaking case the state Supreme Court is likely to view with interest.

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