Public Records Act Basics
This page provides a general overview of the Public Records Act (PRA) for state and local government agencies in Washington State, including what records are public, what records are exempt, and basic procedural requirements.
It is part of MRSC's series on the Public Records Act.
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, while 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 State Agencies Records Retention Schedules and Local Government Records Retention Schedules, approved by the state and local records committees and published by the Washington State Archives (a division of the Office of the Secretary of State), 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.
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 (RCW 42.56.100).
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 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)).
The state Attorney General’s Office has produced a helpful flowchart: When is a “Writing” a “Public Record” under the Public Records Act?
Public Records Act exemptions are found in RCW 42.56.230-.475. Numerous other exemptions and disclosure prohibitions are sprinkled throughout other state and federal statutes.
For a comprehensive list of exemptions, see Appendix C of MRSC's PRA 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.
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. Updated March 2021.
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 Public Records Officer (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 the Examples section at the bottom of this page.
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 (Municipal Code Sec. 1.30.060) and Port of Kingston (PR Policy Appendix A), publish their own list; others, like Issaquah (Municipal Code Sec. 1.28.090), adopt by reference MRSC’s list of exemptions found in Appendix C of MRSC's PRA 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: Maintain 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. For example, see Port Townsend Municipal Code Sec. 2.76.050 and Spokane's executive order (2008).
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. For a more in-depth review of this topic, see our webpage Copying Charges for Public Records.
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.
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 more information on this topic, see our page Tracking Records Requests and Reporting PRA Metrics.
Below are examples of how some jurisdictions have approached adopting PRA policies. Some policies cover the basic policy requirements, while others provide some unique approaches such as restricting PRA response times or providing a system for categorizing requests to facilitate their processing.
Policies Covering Basic Requirements
- Olympia Public Records Policy – Provides a very detailed and complete policy.
- Othello Public Records Policy and Procedure (2020) – Provides a clear and concise policy.
- Lake Stevens Public Records Act Policy (2023) – Good comprehensive policy. Includes adopting resolution.
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 (2017) – Provides that the city will not dedicate more than 20% of the city clerk 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 (2020) – 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 (2019) – 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 (2020) – Provides that public records requests be categorized as routine or complex using an evaluation sheet (see section 3.C. and Attachment A).
- Snohomish County Public Records Request Policy (2017) – Document Delivery section (p. 3) establishes different delivery methods for public records. Requests with electronic records that are up to 25 MB in size are emailed; those over 25 MB (exceeding file size limit for most major email accounts) are provided in CD/DVD or USB format in installments that can be mailed or picked up in person. Departments shall determine if they are able to provide records via online transfer sites.
For additional PRA policy examples, see MRSC's Sample Document Library.
- Washington State Attorney General's Office:
- Open Government Resource Manual (2016) – This online manual was last updated in 2016, but it provides a good overview of the PRA's general legal requirements.
- Local Government Public Records Consultation Program – Helps local governments develop best practices for complying with the PRA.
- Washington State Archives:
- WA Association of Public Records Officers (WAPRO): PRA Toolkit (WAPRO members only)