Hacking through county bureaucracy 

For more than three years, a Hamilton man has been fighting to gain access to data held inside Ravalli County computers without success. Now, his crusade to open records has been supported by a newly formed voters education group, but they aren’t having much success either.

At issue is data collected for the Ravalli County Geographic Information System (GIS), where data about local geography and land use are combined into multi-layer maps. But information in Ravalli County is scattered in several departments, and no one segment of it is formatted to work compatibly with any other.

Darwin Ernst first asked for the then-available information in July 1997. County clerk and recorder Betty Lund refused to give out the scanned plat maps at that time, saying the county needed to recover the costs of collecting and compiling the data.

“Lund told me it would cost me $2 million to get what I was asking for,” Ernst says. “A month later ... I was told it would cost $2,000 for the copying. Then I was told the information wasn’t available at all because it had been compiled with Records Preservation Funds, not tax dollars.”

Ernst continued to send requests for the information to both Lund and the county commissioners. Accompanying his requests were copies of Montana law, which find no difference between paper or electronic records and no difference between draft and final copies. Additionally, under Montana law, only a “reasonable” copying fee may be charged for that information. His requests were ignored.

In June 1998, Ernst pressed the issue again and received a memorandum from Lund that stated computerized data would only be available to the general public after “the data set was 100 percent complete; the data had been verified for accuracy; a description of the data had been prepared; the data was provided in a uniform format; and the county was using the data for its intended purpose.”

Last week, members of Voters Opportunity To Educate (VOTE), with Ernst as a participant, asked for the data and a copy of the grants which paid for the data collection. To date, they have not received anything, although County Commissioner Jack Atthowe has said that they have a right to the data and a deputy county attorney has advised Lund to allow complete public access.

At a meeting with county computer personnel Monday, Ernst and VOTE members were told that the county had no equipment to copy existing data discs but such a copier is now on order. No one has specified when the information will be made available to Ernst, VOTE or any other member of the public.

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