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Be Cautious Before Disposing of a Public Record

Recently, a former city official entered a plea for “injuring public records.” Accepting the plea, the judge stated “You will likely never be a city manager again.” What’s that all about?

A state statute, RCW 40.16.020, prohibits municipal and other public officers from mutilating, destroying, concealing, or falsifying any record or paper relating to the officer’s office. Violation of the statute is a felony and can result in extremely serious penalties: imprisonment for not more than ten years, a fine of not more than $5,000, or both a fine and imprisonment. In addition, if the person is an elected official, conviction of a felony vacates his or her office. RCW 42.12.010(5). But wait, there’s even more: RCW 9.92.120 provides:

The conviction of a public officer of any felony or malfeasance in office shall entail, in addition to such other penalty as may be imposed, the forfeiture of his or her office, and shall disqualify him or her from ever afterward holding any public office in this state.

(Emphasis added.) This section disqualifies the person from any governmental office - elective and appointive - forever.

Another statute, RCW 40.16.010, makes it a felony for any person, not just officers, to “willfully and unlawfully remove, alter, mutilate, destroy, conceal, or obliterate a record, map, book, paper, document, or other thing filed or deposited in a public office, or with any public officer.”

I don’t want to unnecessarily scare anyone. If you toss your personal copy of a meeting agenda after a council or commission meeting, the statute would not be implicated, as the copy would be considered a secondary copy that could be disposed of when it is no longer needed. If a record is destroyed after its retention period has expired, there would be no violation. Or, if a record is inadvertently destroyed or damaged, it is unlikely that a criminal charge would be filed, since there would have been no criminal intent involved. But, the purposeful destruction of records that should otherwise be retained could result in serious consequences.

Given the potential dire consequences associated with the improper destruction of a record, before you hit “delete all” on your computer, or shred a paper document, whether it be at the end of the day or when you leave office, be sure that it is all right to do so. Is the original still on file? Has the retention period run? If you are not sure, ask. Your agency’s records officer, or legal counsel, or MRSC can help.  It’s better - far better - to be sure in advance rather than later being fined, jailed, or told “you’ll never be an official again”

 Think before you shred. Courtesy of recycleharmony.

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.

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About Paul Sullivan

Paul worked with many local governments and authored numerous MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operations in his many years at MRSC. He is now retired.