Proposed law would negate court ruling on counties’ charges for deeds documents

Posted April 23, 2011, at 4:25 p.m.
Last modified April 24, 2011, at 2:12 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill supported by the Maine County Commissioners Association would negate a judge’s decision in a lawsuit over what counties may charge for copies of public records.  

If passed, LD 1499 would be a major setback for a Cumberland County businessman who wants to offer online access to all documents filed in registries of deeds offices around the state.

The impetus for the bill was Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren’s decision in the 2009 lawsuit filed in Cumberland County Superior Court by John Simpson, owner of MacImage of Maine. Simpson of Cumberland sued six Maine counties — Androscoggin, Aroostook, Cumberland, Knox, Penobscot and York — after officials failed to comply with his Freedom of Access Act request for documents at a reasonable rate, according to previous reports.

The counties have appealed Warren’s decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. David Cotta, R-China, would allow county officials to take into account the funding needs for operating expenses when setting fees for copies of public documents.

That is the very thing Warren said in February the law did not allow them to do. The statute now allows county commissioners only to consider factors relating to the cost of producing and making copies available when setting fees.

The bill also would apply retroactively to Sept. 1, 2009, when the MacImage lawsuit was filed. Submitted as an emergency measure, it would take effect immediately if passed.

Penobscot County Administrator Bill Collins said Tuesday during the county commissioners’ weekly meeting that the bill was designed to make the lawsuit moot.

Simpson learned of the bill Friday when a Bangor Daily News reporter emailed him seeking comment.

“There is no need for LD 1499,” he said in an email.  “The bill was written solely to stifle an entrepreneurial Maine business that would otherwise create jobs, pay taxes and provide a valuable public service. I am confident that if county commissioners would only take the time to meet with me and discuss their concerns we could arrive at a mutually beneficial solution.”

Simpson successfully argued in the lawsuit that the fees counties tried to charge him were unreasonable.

Among the prices quoted by the counties were $12 million by Cumberland and $4 million by Penobscot, or $1 per page for 4 million pages, according to previously published reports.

What Simpson is asking for, said Edward Gould, the Bangor attorney who represents the counties, would require Penobscot, Androscoggin and Aroostook counties — which all use the same system to digitize and store documents — to make costly software and hardware upgrades to their electronic data systems at taxpayers’ expense.

Historically, counties around the state have relied on income from selling copies of documents filed with their registries of deeds and, to a lesser extent, probate.

Susan Bulay, registrar of deeds for Penobscot County, estimated in 2009 that the county could lose between $150,000 and $200,000 in income annually if the lawsuit were successful because people could buy land records from MacImage for less than they could from the county.

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