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Records Requests from Agency Elected Officials

October 24, 2019  by  Oskar Rey
Category:  Public Records Act

Records Requests from Agency Elected Officials

MRSC periodically receives inquiries from agencies about public records requests from their elected officials. The basics are fairly simple — but be warned — the issues can quickly become complex, and there is no statutory guidance in the Public Record Act (PRA) about records requests from agency elected officials. Here are some Questions and Answers (Q&A) that help define the issues.

When a Public Records Request Is Not Required

Q: If elected officials request records from the agency, are they required to make a public records request?

A: Not if the request is related to the elected official’s duties. This is the case regardless of whether the official serves with a city, county, or special purpose district. For example, in the case of a city, if a councilmember wants to see records relating to an item on an upcoming council agenda, he or she should be able to request it through the mayor’s or city manager’s office. Under ordinary circumstances, this is part of the process by which records and information are shared internally within an agency.

Processing Public Records Requests from Agency Elected Officials

Q: What should an agency do if one of its elected officials submits a public records request for records related to his or her official duties?

A: Process the request as a public records request. The public records officer should inform the agency’s chief executive officer of the request. In addition, some agencies have policies under which an elected official’s public records request and any responsive records are provided to other members of the governing body so that everyone has the same information. The fact that the request is from an agency elected official (or an agency employee for that matter) does not change the agency’s duties under the PRA.  

In general, use of the public records process by an agency elected official to obtain access to records is a lose-lose proposition. For the elected official/requestor, it may take longer to receive the records and there may be some redactions under the PRA that may not be necessary if the records are provided internally. For the agency, there is additional staff time for processing the request and possible exposure to PRA claims in the event of a dispute. An elected official should not be dissuaded from filing public records requests, but the agency can explain that requesting records internally may be quicker and provide more complete access to the records.  

Public records are routinely shared with agency elected officials in the course of conducting agency functions. When that process is running smoothly, a public records request should not be necessary for an elected official to carry out his or her responsibilities to the agency.

What Hat Is the Elected Official Wearing?

Q: An elected official wants to review certain agency records, and it is not clear to us why he or she wants access. Should we ask the official for more information?

A: There may be times when it is not clear whether an elected official is wearing their “personal” or “elected official” hat. If the requested records contain information that is exempt or confidential, it may be appropriate to determine whether the purpose of the request relates to their role as an elected official.

If the reason for the request is personal and not related to their role as an elected official of the agency, then the elected official should file a public records request and the agency should process the request accordingly. On the other hand, if the request relates to his or her responsibilities as an elected official, then the records should be provided once any necessary redactions have been made.

Q: Speaking of redactions, what if an elected official is wearing his or her “elected official” hat and the records contain information that is exempt or confidential under the PRA?

A: These types of situations need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, so what follows are general guidelines. If the information would be exempt from disclosure in response to a public records request, but not confidential, then the agency can consider disclosing it since there is not a legal prohibition on disclosure.

On the other hand, dissemination of confidential information, such as juvenile offense records or medical records, is prohibited unless specifically authorized by statute. Therefore, confidential information should be redacted from records provided to elected officials unless there is a legal basis for disclosure of that confidential information. An agency should consult with its legal counsel when in doubt about how to proceed.

Procedural Issues and Dispute Resolution

Q: To what extent can these issues be addressed in an agency’s policies?

A: Good policies and practices can be quite useful in these situations even if they don’t address every conceivable scenario. Rules of procedure should specify that a request for records from a member of the governing body shall be made to the agency’s executive officer and not directly to agency staff.

Q: What if there is disagreement between the elected official (e.g., a councilmember) and the agency’s executive officer (e.g., the mayor) over whether the official has a legitimate need for the records sought to carry out his or her duties as an elected official?

A: The chief executive and administrative officer of the agency may have authority to decline the request, but at that point, the elected official would have the option of filing a public records request with the agency. 

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Oskar Rey

Oskar Rey has practiced municipal law since 1995 and served as Assistant City Attorney for the City of Kirkland from 2005 to 2016, where he worked on a wide range of municipal topics, including land use, public records, and public works. Oskar is a life-long resident of Washington and graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1992.



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