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Town must release GIS data

A local computer consultant in Hartford has gained the upper hand in his yearlong battle with Greenwich for aerial photos and maps in the town’s geographic information system when the state Freedom of Information Commission ordered the data’s unconditional release.The commission unanimously rejected the town’s claims that unfettered public access to the state-of-the-art database would compromise residents’ security and privacy. The database was built in 1997 with $3 million in tax money.

The town will probably appeal the commission’s decision to the state Superior Court before complying with the ruling. “There’s a possibility of an appeal in this case,” said Assistant Town Attorney Haden Gerrish, who speculated the ruling would set a precedent for future public records disputes involving GIS databases in Connecticut.

The five-member Freedom of Information Commission arbitrates such disputes between citizens and state and municipal agencies. Greenwich resident Stephen Whitaker appealed to the agency last December after the town repeatedly denied his requests for a complete copy of its GIS data.

In his argument before the commission, Whitaker called GIS “the structural steel” of the new information economy and accused the town of trying to preserve a monopoly on the data. The town has sold photos and maps of individual properties at nominal fees for nearly two years. Whitaker hopes to use the database to acquire property assessment information and tax records and sell that data in a useful format to homeowners.

The computer consultant urged the commission to declare GIS photos and maps public records so citizens could use them in assessing their leaders’ decisions, which he said are often influenced by the materials in the database. He argued that elected officials would be able to operate under a veil of secrecy if GIS materials continue to be restricted.

“That’s a very dangerous road to go down,” Whitaker said.

The commission’s ruling did not come as a surprise to either side. A hearing officer for the state agency sided with Whitaker in a preliminary recommendation issued last month and wrote that the town’s claims were “speculative in nature, and as such, cannot justify withholding records under the Freedom of Information Act.”

Town officials repeatedly speculated that the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks obtained vital infrastructure information from the Internet and from GIS databases. The FBI e-mailed an alert in January to government agencies, warning them of the possibility of terrorists using municipal and state Web sites to gather information for future plots.