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Public Records Act

This page provides a general overview of the Washington State Public Records Act (PRA) for state and local government agencies that includes checklists and practice tips created in collaboration with the State Auditor’s Office Local Government Performance Center to facilitate PRA compliance.

Overview

The Public Records Act (PRA) requires that all records maintained by state and local agencies be made available to all members of the public, with very narrow statutory exemptions.

Chapter 42.56 RCW provides the statutory framework for disclosure of public records and the Washington State Attorney General’s Model Rules on Public Disclosure (chapter 44-14 WAC) provide practical, non-binding, advisory guidance on many issues that may not be clear in the PRA itself.

What Records Are Public?

A public record is defined in RCW 42.56.010(3) as any writing that is prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local government agency, and which contains information that relates to the conduct of government, or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function. The term “writing” is broadly defined in the PRA, to include not only traditional written records, but also photos, maps, videos, voicemails, emails, text messages and tweets (RCW 42.56.010(4)).

What Records Are Exempt?

Public Records Act exemptions are found in RCW 42.56.230-.480. Numerous other exemptions and disclosure prohibitions are sprinkled throughout other state and federal statutes. For a comprehensive list of exemptions in other statutes, see Exemption and Prohibition Statutes Not Listed in Chapter 42.56 RCW.

Statutory exemptions must be narrowly applied and (in addition to prohibitions) provide the only basis for withholding public records. Agencies cannot withhold records based on an assertion that release of the records will cause embarrassment to an agency official or employee, and, as a general matter, cannot withhold records based solely upon the identity of the requester (RCW 42.56.080 and RCW 42.56.550(3)).

For further guidance on exemptions and a quick summary of the exemptions most frequently encountered by local government agencies, see Records that May Be Withheld (scroll down to section heading in publication).

Training Requirements

All members of governing bodies and public records officers must complete PRA training (RCW 42.56.150 and 42.56.152). Training must be completed within 90 days of taking the oath of office or assuming duties. A refresher PRA training is also required every four years. For more information, see the Washington State Attorney General's webpage on Open Government Training.

MRSC and the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) have created a Public Records online course to help mayors and councilmembers fulfill these training requirements.

Basic Procedural Requirements

The first step to ensure compliance with the PRA is to adopt a PRA policy. The policy should include the basic procedural requirements of the PRA, such as identifying the public records officer and outlining the agency’s PRA response process.

Agency Obligations: A Starting Point. The PRA establishes basic procedural requirements that each agency must adopt. Use this checklist as a start for PRA compliance.

Download in PDF.

For examples showing how some jurisdictions have incorporated the PRA basic requirements in their policies, see the section Examples of PRA Policies and Procedures.

Practice Tip: Although one of the basic PRA requirements is to maintain a public records index, RCW 42.56.070 (4) establishes that agencies do not have to maintain an index of public records, if it is unduly burdensome to do so. Instead, agencies may adopt a formal order specifying the reasons why and the extent to which compliance would unduly burden or interfere with their operations. For an example of this type of order, see Spokane's executive order establishing that such an index would be unduly burdensome.

Processing and Responding to Public Records Requests

State and local government agencies are required by RCW 42.56.520 to respond to a public records request within five business days of receiving the request by either:

  • Providing for inspection and/or copying of the records requested;
  • Providing an internet address and link to the specific records requested on the agency’s website (if the individual does not have internet access, then the agency must provide copies or allow the requester to view the records using an agency computer);
  • Acknowledging receipt of the request and providing a reasonable estimate of the time necessary to respond; or
  • Denying the request. If a request is denied, a written statement must accompany the denial setting out the specific reasons for the denial.

Additional time to respond to a request may be based upon the need to:

  • Clarify the intent of the request;
  • Locate and assemble the information requested;
  • Notify third parties or agencies affected by the request; or
  • Determine whether any of the information is exempt and whether a denial should be made as to all, or part, of the request.

Adequate Search to Locate Public Records

The PRA requires that agencies perform an adequate search to locate records responsive to a public records request. The PRA itself doesn’t provide detailed provisions on how to conduct an adequate search. Rather, such requirements can be found in court decisions interpreting the PRA, including Neighborhood Alliance v. Spokane County. The practice tips below explain how to perform an adequate search, based on PRA case law.

How to Perform an Adequate Search. Use these practice tips to guide your agency's search for responsive records.

Download in PDF

Templates and Examples to Facilitate Processing of Public Records Requests

  • Public Records Request and Tracking Form (2015) – Use this template form for public records requests; includes a section identifying how the requester wants to receive the records and provides an internal response tracking section for agency staff.
  • Clarification Letter (2015) – Use this template letter to acknowledge a records request and to ask for clarification on the records requested.
  • PRA Hold Memo (2015) – Use this template memo to alert agency staff and officials that a PRA request has been filed and responsive records need to be retained.
  • Exemption Log (2014) – Use this example to create an exemption log that clearly identifies the records that have been redacted or withheld and provides the RCW citation and a brief explanation of the redaction or withholding.
  • Search Steps for Requests for Records Regarding Properties (2014) – Adapt this tip sheet example (used by a city to locate building/planning permitting records) for other specific types of records requested from your agency.

Electronic Methods for Tracking PRA Requests, Searches and Responses

A handful of Washington cities, including the cities of Kirkland, and Port Angeles, are utilizing Gov QA Open Records Tracking and Processing Software, which allows for administration of PRA requests and responses from one place.  All requests are processed through this system and requesters are able to set up a personal account through which they can submit requests and track the agency’s response to their request. Other functions of the system include:

  • Tracking the time spent on PRA requests.
  • Retaining correspondence between requester and agency.
  • Preserving the history of the PRA request and response.

Locating Emails in Response to a PRA Request

Consider investing in software that allows certain staff members (like the PRO or clerk) to use specified search terms to search all agency email and find responsive records. Some jurisdictions are using GFI Mail Archiver and Commvault for example.

If your agency does not have the budget to invest in such software or otherwise does not have the capability to conduct a search of all agency email, consider using an email voting tool, which allows the PRO to efficiently survey staff and officials on whether they have responsive emails.

Practice Tip: Microsoft Outlook has a “voting function” that can be included in an email, which allows the email recipient to vote “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” regarding whether they have responsive records. To learn how to use the Outlook voting function along with some legal guidance, refer to our Using Microsoft Outlook's Voting Function Practice Tips.

Public Records Retention and Management

State and local government agencies are required by chapter 40.14 RCW  to retain records for different lengths of time depending on the content, function and purpose of the record. The state agencies records retention schedules and local governments records retention schedules, approved by the state and local records committees, establish the time frames in which records must be retained. As well, individual agencies do have the option of requesting the state or local records committee to approve an agency-specific records retention schedule.

Note that under RCW 42.56.100, if a public records request is made at a time when the record exists but is scheduled for destruction in the near future pursuant to the agency’s records retention schedule, the agency cannot destroy or erase the record until the records request is resolved.

Criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, can be assessed for the intentional destruction of public records (RCW 40.16.010 and 40.16.020). 

Electronic Public Records Retention Practice Tips

Electronic records can pose unique challenges for agencies related to records retention and the requirements of the PRA.

Electronic Records Retention Practice Tips. Use these practice tips to guide your agency's compliance with the PRA and records retention requirements for electronic records.

Download in PDF

Retaining Agency Email

 Some agencies keep all email forever. This is not recommended since most emails do not have permanent retention value under the Secretary of State’s Local Government Common Records Retention Schedule (CORE), and since retaining all emails forever can make production in response to a PRA request challenging due to the large number of emails that may be needed to be reviewed for responsiveness.

Instead, consider training staff on proper retention periods and implementing an approach like the City of Bellevue's, which directs each individual staff member to proactively manage their emails.  Within 90 days of creation, each staff members must determine if the email meets the definition of a public record; if so, they need to be placed in an appropriate email folder that is pre-assigned a particular retention period.  Emails that are not placed in folders are assumed to be either non-public records or records with no retention value and are purged from the city system.

Alternatively, take an approach like Olympia, which created a variety of email archiving folders used by all staff, including a standard (minimum) seven-year retention folder, folders with longer retention period, and one folder with a permanent retention period.  Emails that are deleted are placed in a 90-day journaling account where they can still be retrieved within 90 days; after 90 days, they are purged. Emails on which no action is taken are automatically transferred to the seven-year archiving folder. 

Practice Tip: When you forward agency-related emails sent and received on your personal email account, you may lose the metadata with a simple forward. Metadata associated with email is a public record and must be produced, if requested. See O’Neill v. City of Shoreline (2010). The City of Shoreline developed tips for how to preserve metadata when an email is forwarded from a personal account to an agency account. Review these tips with your IT staff and agency attorney.

Electronic Public Records Management by Type of Record

Rules governing electronic records can be complicated so it can be helpful to have guidance on what’s allowed, and what’s not, for records created on different devices, such as computers, cell phones and social media accounts.

Electronic Records Retention Do’s and Don’ts: Use these Do's and Don'ts to help guide your agency's compliance with the PRA for electronic records.

Download in PDF

For further information on how to manage specific types of electronic records, see the Washington State Archives’ page on Electronic Records Management – Advice and Resources.

Examples

  • Mercer Island Electronic Message Policy (2015) – Establishes the city's policy for transmitting and receiving email and other electronic messages, retention periods for email depending on the employee's position, and guidelines for training, auditing, and enforcement of policy.
  • Text Messaging Policies – This page offers examples of the various policy approaches taken by government agencies for employee text messaging.

Examples of PRA Policies and Procedures

State and local government agencies must “adopt and enforce reasonable rules and regulations” to facilitate public access to public records, while at same time “prevent interference with other essential functions of the agency” (RCW 42.56.100 and 42.56.040). Below are examples of how some jurisdictions have approached meeting this requirement. While some policies such as Othello's cover the basic policy requirements, others provide some unique approaches such as restricting PRA response times (Ilwaco), or providing a system for categorizing requests to facilitate their processing (Bainbridge Island).

Policies Covering the Basic Requirements

Policies Limiting the Time Spent on Responding

  • Ilwaco Public Records Act Policy – Restricts the time allocated to public records requests by city staff, including the public records officer, to a maximum of 22 hours per month.
  • Gold Bar Resolution 15-01 (2015) – Limits available time to process requests to an average of eight hours per month.
  • Port Orchard Policies and Procedures (2014) – Provides that the city will not dedicate more than 20% of the city clerk’s department’s time for responding to public records requests.

Policies with Unique Response Approaches

  • Bainbridge Island PRA Administrative Rules (2015) – Separates public records requests into four different categories according to their complexity (see section 8) and offers a standard time period for response based on that category (see section 9). It also establishes that the city may consider a request abandoned if the requestor fails to respond to a city’s request for clarification within 30 days (see section 5).
  • Kirkland Public Records Act Rules (2014) – Sets up a procedure with a records request queue consisting of five different request categories with standard response time periods established for each category (see PRA Rules 070 and 080).
  • Pasco Public Records Request Resolution No. 3460 (2013) – Provides that public records requests be categorized as immediate, routine or complex using a PRR evaluation sheet (see section 3.A).
  • Snohomish County Public Records Request Policy (2015) – Establishes that public records requests be separated into two categories for delivery purposes. Requests with electronic records that are up to 100 MB in size are emailed; whereas those over 100 MB (exceeding county attachment file size) are provided in CD/DVD format in installments that can be mailed or picked up in person (see document delivery section on p.3).

Other Policies

Additional PRA policy examples from Washington State are available through MRSC's Sample Document Library.

Recommended Resources

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Last Modified: March 08, 2017