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Legislators may alter Freedom of Access Act to defeat Cumberland business owner

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Legislators may alter Freedom of Access Act to defeat Cumberland business owner

CUMBERLAND — The Legislature is considering limiting access to public documents, which could prevent a local entrepreneur from offering a commercial, one-stop Web site for statewide land records.

John Simpson's MacImage of Maine now provides Hancock County records online at registryofdeeds.com. He wants to add deeds, liens and mortgage records from all Maine counties.

MacImage gained access to the Hancock County records last September, when a Superior Court judge ruled the company must be allowed, at a reasonable cost, to purchase copies of all the electronic records it needs to build a statewide registry Web site. The court ruled that registry of deeds documents are public records under the state's Freedom of Access Law.

Simpson now wants the court to force other counties to comply, too. However, two bills before the Legislature may stymie his efforts by amending the state's definition of public information.

“They want to take registry of deeds documents out of the Freedom of Access Act,” Simpson said last week.

LD 1554, sponsored by Rep. Patsy Crockett, D-Augusta, would exempt register of deeds documents from statutes that apply to public inspection and fees for copying records. The bill would also require those who acquire records from registers of deeds and then sell and distribute them to state on the documents that they are not official copies.

It additionally would raise the filing fee from $2 to $4 that county registers of deeds can charge for the second and following pages of documents.

Crockett said last week that Simpson has asked the counties for his requested data on a daily basis, “going so far as to say he wants it streamed to him, and this is data that the taxpayers of Maine have been paying for, for many, many years. … And one of my concerns is that the taxpayers have paid for this, and now we’re going to provide this information to an individual, be it whoever … then he will turn around and sell this information for a profit, and we don’t know how secure the information that he’s going to turn around and sell will be.”

Crockett added that “if you’re selling a house, you need (the information) to be accurate, and we know coming out of the deeds offices that it is.”

Simpson has said that part of his company’s Freedom of Access request included a list of all records that have changed, and that each county’s systems show a flag in their database when a record is changed.

The other bill, LD 1714, is sponsored by Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell. It calls for register of deeds documents to be added to a list of records exempt from the designation of “public records.”

Simpson testified in opposition to LD 1554 when the bill went before the State and Local Government Committee on Jan. 20. He said the new fees would make it “prohibitively expensive” for his company to build a statewide deeds Web site, and that the fees would also hurt Maine residents by raising costs connected to purchasing a home, acquiring a mortgage or operating a business in Maine.

“I really hope we don’t have to go through with (a) court case,” Simpson said. “There are many, many win-win situations out there … I’m totally committed to wanting to work with the counties, because in the long run, I need updates from the counties.”

Frank Underkuffler, an attorney representing Sagadahoc and Franklin counties, said on Monday that his clients “have taken the position that the Freedom of Access law does not pertain to registry records.”

He noted that the right-to-know law was designed to open government to public scrutiny, and to make the actions of government transparent. Underkuffler explained that Sagadahoc and Franklin counties maintain that their registry records have always been public, and that the majority of those documents are private deeds between private parties, as opposed to records of governmental action.

Judith Meyer, managing editor at the Sun Journal in Lewiston and vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said Monday that “because these property records are the biggest tax generation base that we have in this state, access to that information – the buying, the selling, the trading, the deals, all of that – has to be open to the public, guaranteed.”

She argued that the registries waited until now to excuse themselves from the Freedom of Access law, only doing so after MacImage won its case with Hancock County.

“Their problem is with the MacImage ruling and not some bigger issue with the registries,” Meyer said. “I just don’t see the MacImage ruling as being that significant, to cause this complete and utter shielding.”

Underkuffler said the counties have paid greatly for the databases, which he called a public asset, and that MacImage could resell the information at a lower price, since the company would lack the overhead shouldered by the counties.

Noting that proponents of the bill say it is necessary to protect county revenues from companies like his, Simpson claimed that after MacImage scanned in Hancock County’s entire registry of deeds records, copy revenue doubled.

“Presumably, if you do that with other counties, copy revenue will double there,” he said.

However, he acknowledged last fall that should his company be able to offer land records for all counties, those counties could lose a significant amount of revenue.

Sagadahoc County Registrar of Deeds Barbara Trott said at the time that her office took in between $35,000 and $40,000 a year in copy fees, while larger counties earned hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that revenue from the copies helped to fund the operation of her office.

Simpson has said he plans to share income from his site with the counties and offer other means to offset their lost revenues.

“If (copy revenue) doubles, and I split it with (the counties), then they’re the same as they were before,” he said.

“(LD 1554) is trying to fix a problem that doesn’t need to be solved with legislation,” Simpson said. “If the bill didn’t exist, the counties would be forced to talk with a Maine company that’s trying to do something innovative. Isn’t that kind of what the Freedom of Access law is trying to do, is trying to make public records more available? … (The registry of deeds) is another type of public record.”

A work session for LD 1554 was scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 3, and the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing the next day on LD 1714, followed by a work session on Feb. 11.

In the meantime, Simpson has worked with legislators with close ties with the registry of deeds about creating something of a co-op, or a non-profit organization that would run a statewide registry.

“It might be an authority, like the (Maine) Turnpike Authority, where the governor appoints a commissioner to run it, and then they have staff to keep the Web site up to date, and work with the counties to make sure that the data is coming in on a regular basis.” Simpson said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.