News for Public Officials and the People They Serve
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.”

I 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 charge.

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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