Lawsuit Debates County's Control of Public Record Access (continued)
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When Wolverton first began working in the office
in the 1990s, the county provided the documents to Chicago Title prior to
indexing them. Chicago Title would make imaged copies of the documents prior
to the county filing them and Chicago Title would also remove the staples
from all the documents and assign them page numbers in exchange for copying
them first. During this time, Chicago Title was splitting the cost of this
process with the other title plants that also needed access to the records.
Once the documents were imaged, Chicago then sold them to the other title
plants in the area.
Over the course of the automation, this arrangement began to hurt the county
because Chicago Title was not able to copy and return documents quickly
enough without causing lag within the county office. This delay forced the
county to eliminate the arrangement. Yet, instead of immediately blocking
the companies from having the access they had come to expect, the county
informed them that it would continue to provide the imaged information to
them on CDs at little or no cost. Yet, according to Wolverton, the county
assured the companies and other title plants that the free access would be
provided until legislation was passed that would allow the counties to
charge for the digital information it was providing.
This agreement worked well with the title plants and the Cook County
Recorders’ Office even extended the agreement to other entities. Wolverton
noted that the arrangement made sense as the title plants provide the county
with a large amount of business, and, thus, his office was extremely happy
to continue working in a mutually beneficial relationship.
“Everyone carried on in this respect (understanding a future charge,),” said
Wolverton. “There was always that caveat. It was never written. We had
always talked about it. They were fully aware.”
n late 2004, the county moved to a file transfer protocol (FTP) site where
they posted the imaged documents and continued to provide Chicago Title,
Stewart Title and First American with free access to the images. Once all of
the legislation was in place to charge a fee for access to bulk information,
the county informed the title plants that they would be required to enter
into a contract in order to continue having access to the ftp site where all
of the county’s documents were placed. Chicago Title and Stewart’s
subsidiaries quickly signed the contract and agreed to the terms outlined by
the county. Yet, First American refused to sign any contract regardless of
the terms, saying that the information should be provided to them free of
Unable to reach an agreement with First American and its counsel, the county
blocked the company’s access to the FTP site in February 2005. When the
county took this action, the title company filed the aforementioned lawsuit
against the county. In addition to the claims that the county was violating
the state’s freedom of information act and was also violating the state code
that provides them access to the county records, First American claimed that
the fees imposed on them were excessive and were injuring their business
because other title plants were still receiving access to the data.
The belief of the county, according to Wolverton, is that it did not act
inappropriately due to the sheer number of documents they file each year.
At the county’s suggested cost of $500,000, payable in quarterly
installments, Wolverton believes that First American would be receiving a
bargain. In 2003, approximately 1.9 million documents were filed within Cook
County. Based on the volume of filings the county handles, Wolverton argued
that the fee they are imposing on title plants is minimal.
First American claims in its suit that “by refusing to provide First
American with Internet access to the Public Records (the) recorder maintains
in electronic form on the FTP site for no charge and without restrictions,
(the) recorder violates Section 5-1106.1 of the Illinois Counties Code.”
Furthermore, the suit claims that “by refusing to provide First American
with the requested electronic data in bulk or compiled form for a fee not
exceeding 110 percent of the actual cost of providing the data and without
restrictions, (the) recorder” violates the county code.
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