What Is an Agency for the Purposes of the Public Records Act?

October 15th, 2018 - Catherine A. Moore

This blog addresses a particular aspect of Public Records Act (“PRA”) law. Visit PRA basics, for more information.

The PRA allows members of the public access to public records held by a state or local agency.” It defines “agency” as “all state agencies and all local agencies… include[ing] 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.” But sometimes, it is not clear whether a particular organization is an “agency” under the PRA.

In cases where it is not clear whether an organization is an “agency” for the purposes of the PRA, courts apply the “Telford test” to determine whether the organization is the functional equivalent of a government agency: “(1) the performance of governmental functions by the entity; (2) the presence of substantial government control over the entity’s day-to-day operations; (3) the authority of the entity to make and implement decisions; [and] (4) the nature of the government’s financial involvement with the entity.” Telford v. Thurston Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 95 Wn. App. 149, 162, 974 P.2d 886, 894 (1999). An organization does not need to meet all of these requirements to be considered an agency; the court must consider all four factors and conclude whether together they make the organization more like a government agency or less like a government agency. Id.

So, for example, in Telford, the Washington State Association of Counties and the Washington Association of County Officials were both found to be the functional equivalent of government agencies and were therefore subject to the PRA because although they had no outside governmental control, they performed a governmental function in that they coordinated county administrative programs, received their funding from counties, were made up of and controlled by elected public officials, and were recognized by the legislature as carrying out state functions. Id. at 163-65. On the balance, these factors indicated that they were in fact public agencies subject to the PRA. Id. at 165-66.

But on the other hand, the Woodland Park Zoo is not the functional equivalent of a governmental agency. Providing a zoo is not a governmental function; 30% of the zoo’s funding came from public sources; there is no public control over the zoo’s operations; and the zoo was not created by governmental action. Fortgang v. Woodland Park Zoo, 187 Wn.2d 509, 524-532, 387 P.3d 690, 698-702 (2017). Nor was a community development association. Providing services to low and moderate income individuals is not the exclusive domain of the government; the association’s funding came from a variety of public and private sources; though the City of Spokane had a contract with the association, it had no day-to-day control over it; and though the association was connected to the city at its inception, it had been made completely independent shortly thereafter and remained so. Spokane Research & Def. Fund v. W. Cent. Cmty. Dev. Ass’n, 133 Wn. App. 602, 608–10, 137 P.3d 120, 123 (2006).

If you think an organization is an agency for the purposes of the PRA, but the organization does not agree with you, you will probably need the help of an attorney experienced in the PRA. This is occasionally a contentious and difficult area of law, and it seems that every few years, our Courts of Appeals and Supreme Court hear cases on whether an organization is an agency under the PRA.

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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