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Public Records Act Basics

This page provides a general overview of the Washington State Public Records Act (PRA) for state and local government agencies to facilitate PRA compliance.

It is part of MRSC's series on the Public Records Act.

COVID-19 Update: Due to the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19), Governor Inslee and the state legislative leaders have issued several temporary waivers and prohibitions related to the Public Records Act. For more information, see:

These orders do not relieve agencies from otherwise complying with the PRA during the COVID-19 emergency. Due to the pandemic JLARC staff have also extended the July 1 reporting deadline for 2019 public records metrics to September 25, 2020.


Overview

The Public Records Act (PRA) requires that all public 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 language of the PRA itself.

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 records retention schedules, approved by the state and local records committees and published by the Office of the Secretary of State – Washington State Archives, establish the time frames for records retention, archiving and destruction. Individual agencies do have the option of requesting the state or local records committee 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 records retention schedule, the agency cannot destroy or  delete the record until the records request is resolved.

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


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, webpage and social media content, 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-.470. Numerous other exemptions and disclosure prohibitions are sprinkled throughout other state and federal statutes. For a comprehensive list of exemptions, see MRSC’s list of exemptions found in Appendix C of our Public Records Act publication. The Code Reviser’s Office also annually publishes a list of exemptions contained in the RCW, which can be accessed on the Attorney General’s Sunshine Committee webpage.

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 MRSC's page on Exemptions and Prohibitions for Local Government Records.


Basic Procedural Requirements

The PRA identifies basic first steps all agencies must take in establishing their PRA program. 

PRA: Agency Obligations: a Starting Point

MRSC has developed a concise checklist detailing the basic PRA procedural requirements. Use this checklist as a starting point for creating an agency's PRA program.

Download in PDF

Below is a list of the basic requirements provided in the checklist above, with some additional details.

Step 1: Identify the Agency’s PRO

Identifying the PRO is critical for the ease and efficiency of receiving and processing PRA requests. The PRO is responsible for overseeing the agency’s PRA compliance. The PRO’s contact information must be visibly posted on the agency website, relevant publications, and at the agency’s place of business.

Step 2: Adopt an Agency PRA Policy

The PRA requires state and local government agencies adopt an agency-specific PRA policy; that policy must 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).

For examples of how some jurisdictions have approached meeting this requirement, see Examples of PRA policies.  

Step 3: Publish and Maintain a List of Exemptions Outside the PRA

Each agency is obligated to “publish and maintain a current list containing every law, other than those listed [in the PRA] that the agency believes exempts or prohibits disclosure of specific information or records of the agency” (RCW 42.56.070(2)). Some agencies, like Prosser and Port of Kingston, publish their own list; others, like Clallam County and Issaquah, adopt by reference MRSC’s list of exemptions found in Appendix C of the Public Records Act publication. The Code Reviser’s Office also annually publishes a list of exemptions contained in the RCW, which can be accessed on the Attorney General’s Sunshine Committee webpage.

Step 4: Maintaining an Index

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. See, for example, Port Townsend’s and Spokane's executive order.

Step 5: Adopt a PRA Fee Schedule

An agency must publish the fees it charges for copying public records; agencies may charge actual copying costs supported by a statement of factors or can charge the PRA’s default charges if calculating actual costs is unduly burdensome. See our webpage, Copying Charges for Public Records, for a more in-depth review of this topic.

Step 6: Provide for a Review Procedure for Denials

An internal agency review procedure must be available to any person who objects to the agency’s denial of a records request (RCW 42.56.520(4)). The petitioner must provide their objection in writing and reasonably identify the agency’s denial so the agency can adequately respond.

Step 7: Ensure All Members of Governing Bodies and Public Records Officers Complete PRA Training 

PRA Training for all members of governing bodies and public records officers 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 (RCW 42.56.150 and 42.56.152). For more information, see the Washington State Attorney General's webpage on Open Government Training

Training for Mayors and Councilmembers

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

Additional Training Requirement for Public Record Officers

PRA and records retention training for public record officers must include training on retention, production, and disclosure of electronic documents, including updating and improving technology information systems. For further information, see the Office of the Attorney General’s Open Government Trainings Act supplemental information sheet, and RCW 42.56.152.


Tracking Records Requests

All agencies are required to track and log information with regard to public records requests per RCW 40.14.026(4) and report PRA metrics to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) per RCW 40.14.026(5).

For further information on this topic, see Tracking Records Requests and Reporting PRA Metrics.


Examples of PRA Policies

Below are examples of how some jurisdictions have approached adopting PRA policies. 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 Basic Requirements

Policies Limiting the Time Spent on Responding

  • Ilwaco Public Records Act Policy (2016) – Restricts the time allocated to processing public records requests to a maximum of 22 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.
  • Snoqualmie Resolution No. 1501 (2019) – Limits the amount of time spent on PRA requests to 16 hours/month for the Public Records Officer (PRO) and 8 hours/month for department-designated staff.

Policies with Unique Response Approaches

  • Bainbridge Island PRA Administrative Rules (2018) – 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).
  • 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 an 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

For additional PRA policy examples, see MRSC's Sample Document Library.


Recommended Resources


Last Modified: September 04, 2020