ELLSWORTH, Maine — After having successfully sued Hancock County over the county’s practice of charging $1.50 per page for electronic copies of documents filed in its Registry of Deeds, a Cumberland company is turning its sights on the rest of Maine.
An official with MacImage of Maine LLC said Wednesday that his firm filed a court complaint late Tuesday afternoon accusing 13 counties in the state of violating the state’s Freedom of Access Law. The complaint, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, names Androscoggin, Aroostook, Cumberland, Franklin, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot, Sagadahoc, Somerset, Waldo, Washington and York counties as defendants.
MacImage is not suing Piscataquis County because that county has agreed to provide the firm with electronic copies of all of the documents filed in its Registry of Deeds. According to Linda Smith, registrar of deeds in Piscataquis County, the county avoided being sued by agreeing to have its online database contractor, Affiliated Computer Services, charge MacImage a bulk rate of 2½ cents for each page.
“We offered to link them up with our vendor, who provides bulk sales,” Smith said Monday. “I was just trying to meet the request as best as I could.”
Oxford County is not named in the suit because the firm representing MacImage in the lawsuit, Preti Flaherty, represents Oxford County in another matter and would have a conflict of interest if it pursued a case against Oxford County, according to Sigmund Schutz, the Preti Flaherty attorney representing MacImage in the lawsuit.
MacImage hopes to establish a Web site where it will use one payment and data retrieval system to sell electronic copies of registry of deeds documents filed throughout Maine. John Simpson, head of the company, said such a site will simplify the work of land surveyors, real estate lawyers and other professionals who now have to use and make payments at 16 different county Web sites in the state.
“We think it could be a win-win for everybody,” Simpson said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, only one county seems to be willing to [voluntarily] work with us.”
In the lawsuits, first against Hancock County and now against the others, MacImage argues that by charging rates of nearly $1 or more per page for electronic bulk purchases of public documents, counties are making access to those documents prohibitively expensive, in violation of Maine’s Freedom of Access Law.
According to Simpson and Schutz, Franklin, Penobscot and Waldo counties have declined to alter their rates for electronic copies of their deeds databases. The other 10 counties named in the new lawsuit have tried avoiding the issue, they claim, with delaying tactics. The requests for access to their databases were sent to the counties more than six weeks ago.
Simpson said he would rather not have to file suit against the counties to get them to comply with his Freedom of Access Law requests.
“It’s unfortunate because it’s a huge waste of taxpayer money and a huge waste of our money,” Simpson said.
Simpson said he also was filing temporary restraining orders against the 13 counties so he could get temporary access to their databases while the case is being decided.
Percy “Joe” Brown, chairman of the Hancock County commissioners, said Tuesday that the county decided recently to make copies of deed related documents available on its Web site for free. He said this decision was in response to the court order that the county reassess its copying fee schedule for those documents.
“It was never defined what a ‘reasonable fee’ is,” Brown said. “[If MacImage can], why shouldn’t everyone have them for free? That’s my take on it.”
Brown said that more than one legislative bill that would allow the counties to charge their usual rates is expected to be considered by the Legislature. Hancock County may revisit its policy of providing free online access to its deed related documents, he said, depending on what happens with the bills.
Julie Curtis, Hancock County’s registrar of deeds, said Tuesday that by not charging for documents online, revenue in her office is expected to decrease by $45,000 in 2010.
According to Maine’s Freedom of Access law, a government agency or official “may charge a reasonable fee to cover the cost of copying.”
In his ruling in September against Hancock County, Justice Thomas Warren decided that Hancock County’s fee of $1.50 per page for its deed related documents was not designed to recoup the approximate cost of producing copies. That fee, which would force MacImage to pay Hancock County as much as $120,000 a year, is prohibitive, the judge wrote.
“The $1.50 per page fee for digital copies does not bear any relationship to the cost of providing digital copies, nor does it bear any relationship to the expenses incurred to run the Hancock County Registry of Deeds,” Warren wrote.
The judge noted in the ruling that other counties might be interpreting the state law that governs what a county can charge for copies of deed related documents “as an authorization to set copying fees in consideration of the county’s overall revenue needs, tax burden, and other revenue sources.”
The Legislature, the judge added, could decide to authorize county officials to do this.
“However, the court concludes that the existing statutory scheme does not constitute that authorization,” Warren wrote.