RCW 42.56.520 requires prompt responses after receiving a public records request. If an agency isn’t providing the records within five-days, it can write a letter within that timeframe providing “a reasonable estimate of the time the agency […] will require to respond to the request.” RCW 42.56.520(1)(c).
Assuming the PRO is not on an extended vacation, the reasonable time estimate for response could factor in the PRO’s upcoming (or ongoing) leave/absence, and the 5-day letter could include this in the explanation for the time estimate. If the PRO is gone for an extended leave, then the agency should assign another staff member the responsibility of gathering records and responding to the requests, because an agency’s response time must be reasonable. Note that an agency must designate a staff member to provide the initial 5-day initial response letter, as that is a firm timeline established in the statute with no exceptions.
What is a reasonable amount of time to respond to a PRA request will vary from agency to agency and request to request, so there is no bright-line rule for reasonableness (e.g., 30 days). If the agency cannot fulfill the request within the time that the agency has estimated in its initial letter, the agency should communicate with the requester that additional time is required to fulfill the request based on specified criteria. See the Attorney General’s PRA Model Rules at WAC 44-14-04003(11). As also stated in the Model Rules at WAC 44-14-04003(7):
An agency should roughly calculate the time it will take to respond to the request and send estimates of varying lengths, as appropriate. Some very large requests can legitimately take months or longer to fully provide. There is no standard amount of time for fulfilling a request so reasonable estimates should vary.
The time it will take for an agency to fulfill a request will depend upon many factors, including the size and complexity of the request and the agency’s resources. See WAC 44-14-04001. It is a good idea for an agency to document how and why it came up with its time estimate. If staffing resources are low or unavailable, the agency could communicate that with the requestor and if challenged, it could at least show a basis for its time estimate. The Model Rules at WAC 44-14-04003(7) states:
While not required, in order to avoid unnecessary litigation over the reasonableness of an estimate, an agency could briefly explain to the requestor the basis for the estimate in the initial response. The explanation need not be elaborate but should allow the requestor to make a threshold determination of whether he or she should question that estimate further or has a basis to seek judicial review of the reasonableness of the estimate.
Public agencies are required by law to adopt their own local public records policies (RCW 42.56.040). The agency’s policy should ideally address what happens when the PRO is on leave (e.g., assigning alternate staff members to process and fulfill requests). We recommend that an agency maintain a separate email for PRA requests that is accessible by multiple people in case the PRO or person charged with responding to requests is out of the office. For more information, you may also want to review our Public Records Act page, particularly the pages on Basic Procedural Requirements, Responding to Public Records Requests, Searching and Producing Public Records, Managing Electronic Records, and Examples of PRA Policies.