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Is the Public Records Act Working? Can it Be Improved? Let’s Find Out.

An important effort is currently underway that I think merits the particular attention of local government officials and employees throughout Washington state. This collaborative effort relates to exploring improvements to our state’s Public Records Act (PRA), chapter 42.56 RCW.

Earlier this year, the state legislature, as part of enacting the state operating budget for 2013-15, enacted ESSB 5034. In relevant part (see Section 607(3)), ESSB 5034 allocates funds:

for the Ruckelshaus center to collaborate with local governments, the media, and representatives of the public regarding public record requests made to local government. The center shall facilitate meetings and discussions and report to the appropriate committees of the legislature.

As described on its website, the mission of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center is to:

act as a neutral resource for collaborative problem solving in the State of Washington and Pacific Northwest. The Center provides expertise to improve the quality and availability of voluntary collaborative approaches for policy development and multi-party dispute resolution.

The Center, which is a joint effort between the University of Washington and Washington State University, is currently pursuing a “Public Records Requests Situation Assessment.” As described in ESSB 5034, the result of this effort will be a report that will include:

(a) Recommendations related to balancing open public records with concerns of local governments related to interfering with the work of the local government;


(b) Resources necessary to accommodate requests;


(c) Potential harassment of government employees;


(d) Potential safety concerns of people named in the record;


(e) Potentially assisting criminal activity; and


(f) Other issues brought forward by the participants.

As set forth in ESSB 5034, the Center is required to report to the appropriate committees of the legislature by December 15, 2013. I spoke with representatives of the Center and they indicated to me that they are in the process of using a scientifically-based methodology to interview a wide variety of individuals as part of the assessment process. Topic areas of interest that are being covered through the process include how well the PRA is working and what specifically about the PRA may need improvement.

Another noteworthy topic area that is being covered relates to collaboration, including whether a collaborative process is appropriate to address the issues set forth above in (a) – (f). This topic also explores what would be accomplished through such a process, concerns or challenges that would need to be addressed, and how a process could be designed to address those challenges. A related topic explores whether it would be important for a collaborative process to be assisted by a neutral third party, and, if so, how that would be done.

The PRA has a direct impact on local governments throughout the state on a regular, if not daily, basis. Given this reality, and the significance of the PRA in fostering transparency and openness in local government, it’s important that this effort initiated by the legislature and facilitated by the Ruckelshaus Center be successful. To that end, if the Ruckelshaus Center seeks you out to be directly involved in this process, whether you are a Washington local government official or employee or otherwise, I encourage you to take your role seriously and to be very thoughtful in providing feedback to the Center, because your input will be on behalf of many others who are similarly situated.

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.

Photo of Joe Levan

About Joe Levan

Joe served as an MRSC Legal Consultant and Legal Manager. He has been a municipal attorney for many years, including as an in-house city attorney, in private practice for two municipal law firms through which he provided litigation and a range of other services to several Washington municipalities, and as part of the in-house legal team for Sound Transit. He no longer works for MRSC.