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Trustee Support Resources

Public Records

This chapter addresses laws that relate to public records in libraries. Many general questions can be answered by consulting the in-depth resource, Open Government Resource Manual, which cites the laws and subsequent legal interpretations. Specific questions should be addressed to your library’s legal counsel.

In 1972, the voters in the state of Washington adopted Initiative 276, which requires that most records maintained by state, county, and city governments, and by all special purpose districts, be made available to members of the public.

From the Open Government Resource Manual, Chapter 1:

“The Public Records Act (“PRA” or “Act”) was enacted by initiative to provide the people with broad rights of access to public records. The Act declares that it must be ‘liberally construed’ to promote the public policy of open government.

The Public Disclosure Act (now referred to as the Public Records Act, RCW 42.56), along with the Open Public Meetings Act (“OPMA”), RCW 42.30, addressed requirements for state and local governmental units to conduct open public meetings and to provide public access to their records. The Public Disclosure Commission is responsible for providing information about the RCW’s as well as ensuring compliance.

The following statement from RCW 42.56.030 demonstrates the clear intent of the law and the manner in which courts have interpreted the law:

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected in the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.

RCW 42.56.550(3) emphasizes this by stating:

Courts shall take into account the policy… that free and open examination of public records is in the public interest, even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others…

Because the public records disclosure statutes are sometimes difficult to interpret and are often a source of litigation, the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) has prepared a publication, Public Records Act for Washington Cities, Counties, and Special Purpose Districts, which reviews all of the relevant statutes, exemptions and prohibitions to disclosure, and procedures to be followed when handling a request for disclosure. Another helpful resource is the “Public Records Act” web page from the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which provides links to RCWs, WACs, Attorney General Opinions, and a wealth of other related sources.