Hancock County loses case over electronic copies

Posted Sept. 16, 2009, at 6:48 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Hancock County officials have been told by a Superior Court judge that they cannot charge $1.50 per page for copies the county provides to a private electronic document company.

The ruling has prompted the company to announce that it plans to expand its Web site to include land records registered throughout Maine.

John Simpson, owner of MacImage of Maine LLC, said Tuesday that he was “very pleased” with the ruling in favor of his company. Simpson filed a Freedom of Access case with Hancock County last fall, alleging that the county’s practice of charging $1.50 per page for electronic copies of documents filed in its registry of deeds violated state law.

According to Simpson, the county’s cost of reproducing electronic copies of deeds and related documents is virtually nonexistent. The county is allowed to charge for copies, but the state’s Freedom of Access law allows the county to charge only enough to recover its expenses in producing those copies, MacImage argued.

The decision, reached Sept. 1 in Cumberland County Superior Court by Justice Thomas Warren, helps pave the way for MacImage to go about acquiring copies of registry of deeds documents from all 16 counties in Maine, Simpson said. Simpson’s company is based in the Cumberland County town of Cumberland.

“The only people who don’t like this idea are people who are concerned about losing revenue for the county,” Simpson said. “I’m in this to provide a service that people really want.”

In arguing its case, Hancock County referred to a different state statute in justifying its practice of charging $1.50 per page. It cited a separate section of law that allows counties to charge “a reasonable fee” for copies of its deeds documents. The $1.50 per page rate is reasonable, the county argued, and MacImage should pay the same rate that everyone else pays.

According to the county’s attorney, Anthony Pellegrini of Bangor, Warren agreed with the county that it is allowed to charge “a reasonable fee” but said the county is restricted in how to decide what is reasonable.

The judge decided the county could consider only costs related to copying in setting its fee, Pellegrini said Tuesday. It cannot consider other budgetary needs that do not apply to the cost of producing copies, such as how to raise money for building a new jail, for example, or even how to pay for other deed-related costs such as new bookshelves or other Web-based services.

Warren ruled that until Hancock County can arrive at a more detailed analysis of what its actual copying costs are, MacImage is entitled to pay a lower fee for all the documents it requests from the county’s registry of deeds, Pellegrini said.

But some things have not been made clear by the decision, which has prompted the county to file a motion for the court to reconsider and clarify the ruling, he said.

For example, Warren’s ruling does not indicate whether the county can continue charging $1.50 per page to others besides MacImage who request copies of its deed-related documents.

“The court is not telling the county it has to treat everyone like MacImage,” Pellegrini said. “That is part of the confusion we have.”

Pellegrini said it also is not clear whether MacImage will have to file other FOA requests in order for the court decision to apply to future transactions. For now, he said, a temporary restraining order that the court imposed on the county in May is still in effect and gives MacImage the right to purchase copies of deed-related documents from the county at cost.

Pellegrini said the Superior Court decision does not apply to other counties in Maine that also may have copying fees that exceed their costs of reproducing documents. If the county appeals the decision to the Law Court, he said, whatever resulting decision that court reaches would affect every county in Maine.

“What this will do for York, Piscataquis, Penobscot [counties] and all the rest … there’s really nothing in [Warren’s decision] that is binding,” Pellegrini said.

Pellegrini said he is not sure when the judge might rule on the county’s motion for reconsideration and clarification. The attorney said Hancock County has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision to the Law Court.

Simpson said that the public would be well served by being able to go to use one Web site where it can look up and acquire deed-related documents from anywhere in Maine. For the average person who appears in person at a registry of deeds to get copies of a few registered documents, the cost of $1.50 a page might be appropriate because that person likely will use up staff time to find and get what they want, he said.

But for professional surveyors and title researchers, their time will be much better spent using only one site and system, Simpson said. It will streamline their efforts and save their customers money, he said.

Simpson stopped short of saying he has 15 other FOA requests that he plans to file with every other county in Maine. He said he hopes the court decision, and his own conversations with other officials in other counties, will remove the financial barrier he otherwise would face in getting copies of public documents from registry of deeds throughout the state.

“It’s pretty hard to predict how much resistance [in other counties] we’re going to face,” Simpson said. “A one-stop shop would be helpful to a lot of people.”

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