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Trustee Support Resources

Requesting Public Records

Does a person requesting a public record need to give a reason for the request?

Any person may make a request to inspect and to copy a public record. The agency may not ask the person why they are making the request. (RCW 42.56.080) Chapter 1 of the Open Government Resource Manual expands upon this, stating, “A person making a public records request is not required by the [Public Records] Act to give a reason for the request, except in the rare instances where the agency needs to know the purpose to determine if the request would violate a statute. … See WAC 44-14-04003(1). Except for commercial uses, release of information may not be limited by the purpose of the request….”

Does the Act specify the way in which requests should be made?

Chapter 1 of the Open Government Resource Manual states, “No particular form of request is required by the Act. …Although an agency may make its own reasonable rules for providing records, its rules must give the ‘fullest assistance to’ requesters and require the ‘most timely action’ in response to requests for records. RCW 42.56.100 The PRA specifically allows persons to make requests by mail, which includes email under current technology.”

Oral requests are permitted, but a written request is advisable for several reasons:

  • It confirms the date on which the record is requested;
  • It clarifies what is being requested;
  • It provides for identification of the requesting party, with address and telephone number;
  • Having identifying and contact information will facilitate any requests for clarification by the agency of any ambiguous request and enables the agency to determine if a person has the right to a record that would normally be exempt.

The Open Government Resource Manual notes that some laws outside the PRA require written requests. WAC 44-14-03006 states that a request can be made by mail, e-mail, fax, or orally. It encourages agencies to make their public request forms available on their web sites.

What should a public records request form include?

WAC 44-14-03006 states that the request form should:

  • Ask the requestor whether he or she seeks to inspect the records, receive a copy of them, or inspect the records first and then select particular records to copy;
  • State that inspection of records is free;
  • Provide the per-page charge for standard copies;
  • Request contact information for the requestor, such as:
    • Name;
    • Phone number;
    • Mailing address;
    • E-mail address.

Agencies should not require a requester to provide a driver’s license number, date of birth, or photo identification. Although not required, the agency may ask a requester to prioritize the records being requested so that the agency is able to provide the most important records first.

How much information to identify the desired record(s) does the requester need to provide to the agency?

The agency is required to respond to a request for “identifiable public records.” (RCW 42.56.080) The requirement that a record be “identifiable” means that the requestor does not need to know the specific name of a record, but can request documents that relate to a topic. WAC 44-14-04002(2) expands upon this by stating:

“…An ‘identifiable record’ is one that agency staff can reasonably locate. The act does not allow a requestor to search through agency files for records which cannot be reasonably identified or described to the agency. However, a requestor is not required to identify the exact record he or she seeks.”

The WAC further states:

  • An “identifiable record” is not a request for “information” in general;
  • Agencies are not required to conduct legal research for a requestor.

An agency is not required under the Act to respond to questions or to furnish information that is not the subject of an identifiable public record. However, the agency must “provide for the fullest assistance” to requestors, which may help a requestors to clarify the desired document.

Who should be the point of contact for members of the public who wish to make a request for public records?

As stated in RCW 42.56.580, “each state and local agency shall appoint and publicly identify a public records officer whose responsibility is to serve as a point of contact for members of the public in requesting disclosure of public records and to oversee the agency’s compliance with the public records disclosure requirements. A state or local agency’s public records officer may appoint an employee or official of another agency as its public records officer. Agencies should provide contact information as follows:

  • For state agencies: Name and contact information should be published in the state register when the contact is designated. That information is then maintained on the code reviser’s web site for the duration of the designation;
  • For local agencies: Name and contact information should be made available in a way that is reasonably calculated to provide notice to the public, including:
    • Posting at the local agency’s place of business;
    • Posting on its Web site;
    • Including it in its publications.

How quickly must agencies respond to requests for public records?

As stated in RCW 42.56.520, agencies must respond to a public records request within five (5) business days of receipt. The response may take the form of:

  • Providing the record;
  • Providing an internet address and link on the agency’s web site to the specific records requested;
  • Acknowledging the request and providing an estimate of the amount of time needed to fulfill the request; or
  • Denying the request.

The RCW includes the following Finding (2010 c 69 § 1): “The internet provides for instant access to public records at a significantly reduced cost to the agency and the public. Agencies are encouraged to make commonly requested records available on agency web sites. When an agency has made records available on its web site, members of the public with computer access should be encouraged to preserve taxpayer resources by accessing those records online.”

AG Opinion AGO 1991 No. 6 provides an interpretation of what is meant by “promptly” in responding to requests for public records.

What if a person requesting records cannot access them through the internet?

If the requestor notifies the agency that they are unable to access the records through the internet, the agency must:

  • Provide copies of the record; or
  • Allow the person making the request to view copies using an agency computer.

(RCW 42.56.520)

Are there specific hours during which agencies must make public records available at their physical locations?

Although RCW 42.56.090 is not specific, stating only that “public records shall be available for inspection and copying during the customary office hours of the agency, … for a minimum of thirty hours per week, except weeks that include state legal holidays, unless the person making the request and the agency … agree on a different time, WAC 44-14-03002 states “If the agency is very small and does not have customary office hours of at least thirty hours per week, the records must be available from 9:00 a.m. to noon, and 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.”

Are there any provisions for allowing agencies more than five days to respond to a request?

If the response will take longer than five days, it must be based on:

  • The need to clarify a request;
  • The time required to locate and assemble the information requested;
  • The need to notify third persons or agencies affected by the request; or
  • The need to determine whether any of the information requested is exempt and if a denial should be made as to all or part of the request.

(RCW 42.56.520)

What recourse does a person making a request have if their request for a public record is denied or if they believe that the time estimated by the agency to fulfill the request is unreasonable?

A requestor who believes that the time estimate made by the library is not reasonable may request the superior court in the county in which the record is maintained to require the library to show that the estimate is reasonable. The burden of proof is upon the agency. 

A person who prevails in a court action seeking the right to inspect or copy a public record, or the right to receive a response to a public record request within a reasonable amount of time, shall be awarded all costs, including reasonable attorney fees, incurred in connection with such legal action. In addition, the court may award an amount of not less than five dollars and not to exceed one hundred dollars for each day that the person was denied the right to inspect or copy the public record.

(RCW 42.56.550)

May fees be charged to make public records available?

No fees may be charged for the inspection of public records.  Nor may a fee be imposed for locating public documents and making them available for copying.

A reasonable fee may be charged for making copies and for the use of equipment to make copies. The fee may not exceed actual costs directly related to the copying. Direct staff time to copy the requested public records may be included in the fee, as well as the cost of paper, toner, cost of the per-page use of equipment, and the cost of shipping or mailing including postage and the envelope or containers.  Administrative or overhead costs may not be included unless they are directly attributable.  

If the agency has not established a per-page cost, it may not charge more than fifteen cents per page for photocopies of public records or for the use of equipment to photocopy public records. An agency may require a desposit that is no more than 10 per cent of the estimated cost of the total number copies.

(RCW 42.56.120)

RCW 42.56.070(7) notes that agencies must make available to the public a statement of the photocopy costs, and the manner in which the actual per-page cost was determined.

AG Opinion AGO 1991 No. 6 provides additional information on the question of fees and public records.

If a portion of a public record contains information covered by an exemption, can an agency deny the request for the record?

As stated in Chapter 1 of the Open Government Resource Manual, “Agencies are not relieved of their duties to respond to requests for public records because a part of the document is covered by an exemption. An agency must delete or redact only the exempt information and disclose the rest of the document.” Information should be removed only if it violates personal privacy or a vital government interest. (RCW 42.56.210(1))

See WAC 44-14-04004(4)(b)(i) for additional information on redaction and public records.

If police or other authorities ask to see library circulation records, what is the procedure?

As noted above, RCW 42.56.310 exempts library circulation records from inspection or copying without due process. The process that police or others may initiate is described in RCW 42.56.550:

  • They may file a motion with the superior court in the county in which a record is maintained, requiring the library to show cause why it refused to allow inspection or copying of a specific record or class of records.
  • The superior court must hold a hearing with notice to every person of interest and the library. After the hearing, the court may permit inspection or copying if it is found that the exemption is clearly unnecessary to protect the individual’s right of privacy or any vital government function. [Not included in RCW 42.56.550]
  • The third party to whom the library record pertains may seek injunctive relief to enjoin disclosure of the record. The action may be filed in the superior court where the person resides or where the record is maintained. The library may notify persons named in a record, or to whom a record pertains, that the record is subject to a pending record request under the Act. [Not included in RCW 42.56.550]

Note: A search warrant is not sufficient because it does not provide for the superior court hearing process with notice to persons of interest and the library.