ELLSWORTH, Maine — In a case that could have costly implications throughout Maine, Hancock County is being sued by a private company that essentially wants free access to all of the electronic records filed in the county’s registry of deeds.
Last fall, MacImage of Maine LLC filed a Freedom of Access Act request with the county in order to obtain electronic copies of documents in the county’s deeds office. The county responded by directing MacImage to the county’s Web site, where all of the documents requested by the company can be downloaded by anyone for $1.50 a page.
MacImage, which asserts that the actual cost to the county of reproducing electronic copies of the documents is virtually nonexistent, then filed suit against the county in Cumberland County Superior Court.
MacImage, which is based in the town of Cumberland, also claims in a separate suit that the county owes it more than $300,000 for work it has done for the registry of deeds.
Oral arguments in the civil trial were expected to be heard this week, but according to the county’s attorney, Anthony Pellegrini of Bangor, the trial has been delayed, likely until sometime next month.
Pellegrini said Monday that the outcome of the case could have repercussions for many counties in Maine, if not all. If MacImage prevails, the ruling could erase all future revenue from deed-related paper and electronic copies, which likely would result in higher county tax bills across the state. Who would pay for paper copies, he noted, if anyone could get the electronic versions for free?
“It potentially has huge significance for every county in the state, to the extent that they have electronic copies of their documents,” Pellegrini said.
John Simpson, the owner of MacImage, contends that what he is doing is no different from what many online services do. They offer some services such as viewing public documents for free and then charge a premium for other services, such as printing or downloading. All he is doing, with software his company has developed, is offering taxpayers a competitive choice.
“The law is very clear here,” Simpson said Monday. “It says public officials can charge for the cost of copying.”
With modern technology, he said, original documents in many offices — including deeds and related documents — are created electronically before they are ever copied for other parties, which means the subsequent cost of reproducing them electronically is virtually nil.
“If they can demonstrate there is a cost, we’ll be glad to pay it,” Simpson said.
Pellegrini said it is the county’s position that MacImage’s lawsuit is without merit because his FOA request was not denied. He has access to the documents, the same as everybody else, at the same per-page rate that everyone else pays. The $1.50 rate applies both to copies printed or downloaded off the county’s Web site and to paper copies made at the registry of deeds office.
As part of its FOA lawsuit, MacImage has obtained a temporary restraining order against the county so that, while the case is pending, it has free access to all electronic copies on the county’s registry of deeds Web site.
“There was no denial of the [FOA] request,” Pellegrini said. “The fee charged by the [county] Web site is a legitimate fee.”
Hancock County Clerk Cynthia Deprenger said Monday that the county always has charged for copies of public documents on file in its deeds office. This fee, which has changed in value over the years, is aimed at covering the expenses of reproducing the documents, she said.
Deprenger said the county doesn’t believe it should have to provide copies of its documents free to a private company while it charges everyone else for the same thing. Deprenger said Simpson essentially is asking for preferential treatment.
“We feel like we’ve treated him as fairly as everybody else,” she said. “But he’s asking for more. He wants them for free.”
Deprenger said that the county had expected to earn $45,000 in revenue this year from electronic copies generated by the registry of deeds. The amount the county budgeted this year for revenue from paper copies made in the deeds office is $100,000.
All counties charge fees for reproducing documents at their deeds registries, according to Deprenger.
“We’re all pretty level across the board with what we charge,” she said.
A separate suit filed by MacImage claims the county owes it more than $300,000 for work the company has done for the registry of deeds in making documents available online.
According to Simpson, MacImage of Maine provided online document services to the Hancock County Registry of Deeds for nearly 10 years, including managing the county’s deeds Web site, until last fall. He said he did work for the county at little to no charge because he had promises that it would pay his firm more substantially to pursue bigger projects later on.
Simpson said he even had a written agreement that the county would pay him for some work he already had done if it opted instead to hire a different online document service firm for that later work. He alleges that the county did hire another firm, but then hid that decision from him and improperly denied him the chance to offer a competitive bid on the work.
Because of that prior agreement, Simpson said, the county owes his company more than $300,000.
Simpson, who charges 75 cents a page for copies of the county’s deed records on the MacImage Web site, said the reason he wants electronic copies of the documents even though he now is not doing any work for the county is that he wants to keep his Web site, which he claims is superior to the county’s, up-to-date and competitive. That is why he filed the FOA request, he said.
Simpson, who acknowledged his lawsuit could have implications for every county in the state, put much of the blame for the disagreement between Hancock County and his firm on Julie Curtis, who was elected the county’s register of deeds at the end of 2006.
Curtis, contacted Tuesday by phone, declined to get into specifics about the county’s dispute with Simpson but said it predates her tenure in county government.
“This started before me,” she said. “I’m not the cause of him not being welcome at the county [offices].”
Simpson stressed, however, that MacImage still is interested in working with the county and that he has tried and is still trying to negotiate a settlement with county officials.
“This is not the way I want to work,” Simpson said. “There is an offer on the table that will cost the county nothing.”