Court blocks Cumberland man's plan to aggregate, sell county records

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PORTLAND — A Cumberland business owner said he is unsure if will try again to establish a statewide, commercial provider of county records after the state’s highest court reversed a lower court decision in his favor.

Six Maine counties asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to overturn last year’s Maine Superior Court decision in favor of MacImage of Maine.

Company owner John Simpson intended to provide online public access to registry of deeds documents at a lower cost than the counties charge. His website, registryofdeeds.com, only had Hancock County records, but Simpson wanted to add deeds, liens and mortgage records from all Maine counties.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition supported the company’s cause. MacImage argued last December that state law makes registries of deeds’ records public, and that the public is permitted to copy and inspect those documents at a reasonable price.

“It’s been a very long road, and hopefully we’ve paved the way that will make it easier for other people trying to get public records in the future,” Simpson said at the time.

The SJC’s March 27 decision, however, noted that after the Superior Court ruled on the matter and the counties appealed, the Legislature approved new legislation last year that in part set fees counties could charge for digital copies of documents.

“A portion of that legislation was explicitly enacted to apply ‘retroactively to September 1, 2009,’ which encompasses the time within which the MacImage and Simpson requests were submitted,” the decision said.

The decision added that the requests “alerted the Legislature to the novel issue before the counties, and the resulting public law sought to bring legislatively established standards to an area of generally applicable law that lacked definition at the time of (the) requests. The Legislature was required to balance the public’s interest in access to the records with the governmental costs of making those records available.

“It has done so in an area of evolving technology and varied fiscal considerations, and it has acknowledged the need for attention to the emerging issues through the sunset provision that will require the issues to be revisited by the counties’ commissioners,” the decision continued. “We conclude that the Legislature had a rational basis for acting to resolve an issue of important public interest.”

Simpson said last week that he thought the high court viewed the issue as a dispute between one private company and the counties, “and they viewed the counties as representing the public interest. And that’s not really the way I see it.”

Simpson said his company has tried to provide a public service that thousands of people have already used, and that it better represented the public interest than have the counties.

“The court viewed it differently than I view it, and so it was disappointing,” he said. “… I do have some plans that I think may still work. But I’m not sure I want to continue the fight, because whatever I do, there’s going to be a fight about it.

“… My original interest was in finding a way to to work cooperatively with the counties, and trying to find a win-win solution,” Simpson said. “It’s clear that they are dead-set on keeping things the way that they are.”

He said he hasn’t decided if he will to move forward with a new business plan.

“I’m not going to discuss publicly what I might do until the Legislature is out of session,” Simpson said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.