Public Records Act Basics for Members of the Public

September 28th, 2018 - Catherine A. Moore

Do you need some documents from a local government in Washington State and don’t know how to get them? While some documents are available online, many documents agencies use or rely on are not readily accessible. The Public Records Act allows you to access records used or held by Washington governmental agencies.

What is the Public Records Act?

You may have heard of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which applies to the federal government. The Public Records Act, or PRA, is Washington’s answer to FOIA. The PRA requires that agencies in Washington must disclose public records to members of the public upon request (with some exceptions). It is codified at Chapter 42.56 RCW.

Why Does Washington Have the PRA?

The PRA is premised on the idea that “[t]he people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them.” RCW 42.56.030. By requiring that records are disclosed to the public when requested, the PRA helps ensure that the people remain knowledgeable about and in control of the government they created.

What Are Public Records?

A “public record” is any sort of digital or physical written document, photograph, film, sound recording, etc., that is “prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency…” RCW 42.56.010(3), (4). This is a broad definition which covers almost any sort of record in almost any format.

Under the PRA, you may request any public record that currently exists. An agency is not required to generate new documents in response to a public records request.

To Which Agencies Does the PRA Apply?

Essentially, the PRA applies to all governmental organizations in Washington, including “every state office, department, division, bureau, board, commission, or other state agency… [and] every county, city, town, municipal corporation, quasi-municipal corporation, or special purpose district, or any office, department, division, bureau, board, commission, or agency thereof, or other local public agency.” RCW 42.56.010(1). The PRA refers to these as “agencies,” which is how they will be referred to in this blog. The PRA also applies any organization that is the functional equivalent of a government agency. Telford v. Thurston Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 95 Wn. App. 149, 162, 974 P.2d 886, 894 (1999).

Who May Submit a Request for Records Under the PRA?

Anyone may submit a request for records under the PRA. You do not need to be a citizen of the US or a resident of Washington or any other geographical area to submit a public records request. You can also submit a request on behalf of an organization.

Should I Do Anything Before Submitting a PRA Request?

Before submitting a PRA request, it is always a good idea to check the agency’s website first to make sure the record isn’t available there. And often, simply calling or emailing the agency to request the record informally will get you the record more quickly (though there can be disadvantages to this approach). You are not legally required to do either of these things before making your request.

How Do I Submit a Request for Public Records?

All agencies are required to have a procedure for handling public records requests and make it available to the public and a public records officer. RCW 42.45.040, .080. Most agencies will have a PRA form they use to make the records request process more efficient, but there is no statutorily-required form. RCW 42.56.080. If such a form exists, it is advisable to use it. That being said, an agency’s duty to respond to a public records request is triggered when it receives a specific request for identifiable public records, stated with “sufficient clarity to give the agency fair notice that it had received a request for a public record.” Wood v. Lowe, 102 Wn. App. 872, 878, 10 P.3d 494, 497-98 (2000).

If you’re unsure how to make a PRA request, contact the agency directly and ask for assistance. An agency has an obligation to provide the fullest assistance to requestors. Generally, an agency needs your name, contact information, and a sufficiently specific description of the records you’re requesting. It may also ask which format you would like to receive the records in.

How Soon Should I Expect a Response to My Request? What Will the Response Be?

Per RCW 42.56.520, within five (5) business days after you submit your PRA request, the agency must respond in one or more of several ways:

  •  it can provide the records
  •  it can provide you with the web address where the record is located
  • it can inform you of the amount of time it expects it will need to process your request
  •  it can deny your request

The agency can also ask you to clarify your request if it finds your request unclear (though if you do not answer, it must interpret your request and provide the records it thinks you want).

How Will I Receive My Records?

Usually, the agency will ask how you would like to receive your records. The agency may provide you physical copies of records or invite you to inspect the records at their offices. If you requested electronic copies, the agency may also provide you with digital records. If you would like to receive records in a particular physical form or digital format, you should inform the agency at the time you make your request.

What Must an Agency Do If It Denies My Request?

There are a huge number of reasons why an agency may deny a public records request (see next question). If your request is denied or a record is withheld or redacted, the agency must inform you of the reason why in writing. RCW 42.56.520(4). If a document can be redacted rather than withheld in its entirety, the agency must redact it and release the unredacted portion.

Why May an Agency Deny My Request Or Redact Or Withhold Records?

Any agency may deny a request or withhold or redact records only when it has legal authority to do so. There are dozens of reasons an agency may legally withhold or redact a record. It should be noted that all of these exceptions are to be construed narrowly, and that agencies are not obligated to withhold or redact documents meeting these exceptions.

A complete list of PRA exemptions can be found on the Washington State Sunshine Committee’s website; click on the link for the current year’s “Public Disclosure Statutes.” Some broad categories of the most common exemptions are listed below. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Attorney-client privileged records;
  •  Some personal information, either in specific circumstances, or personal information that would offensive if disclosed and is not of legitimate concern to the public;
  • Certain records and information relating to public employees and applicants for public employment;
  • Certain records and information relating to law enforcement, criminal investigations, criminal proceedings, and terrorism or national security;
  • Valuable commercial information, financial information, proprietary information, trade secrets, and the like;
  • Drafts and other records that show deliberative process prior to a final version of the document;
  • Lists of natural persons, if the individuals will be contacted for a commercial purpose; and
  • Court case files, which the public has a right to access under common law. Nast v. Michels, 107 Wn.2d 300, 304, 730 P.2d 54, 56 (1986).

An agency is also not required to respond to a PRA request that request excessively interferes with essential agency functions or unreasonably disrupts the operations of the agency. RCW 42.56.100, .080.

Will I Be Charged a Fee?

Agencies have the authority to charge fees for digital and physical copies of requested records. An agency will either have a schedule of costs based on the actual cost of producing documents, or it will use the cost schedule in the RCW 42.56.120. At the time of publishing, the statutory charge schedule is: 15 cents per page for printed photocopies, 10 cents per page for scanned documents, 1.25 cents per electronic file plus 10 cents per gigabyte for electronically transmitted documents, plus actual costs of document storage or postage. Costs can be additive if more than one category of costs apply. There is no fee for inspecting records without copying them.

Is My PRA Request a Public Record?

Yes, your PRA request is a public record, and someone else could request that it be disclosed to them.

What Do I Do If I Think an Agency Isn’t Handling My Response Correctly?

The PRA is an intricate law with decades of history. Each year, more case law develops on the PRA. If you have questions or concerns about how an agency has handled your PRA request, you should contact an attorney experienced in municipal or administrative law for advice or assistance.

Disclaimer: This article and blog are intended to inform the reader of general legal principles applicable to the subject area. They are not intended to provide legal advice regarding specific problems or circumstances. Readers should consult with competent counsel with regard to specific situations.

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