Division Three of the Washington Court of Appeals concluded that Benton County did not violate the Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA), by temporarily withholding records pending notice to a third party named in those records.

Donna Zink made a PRA request for records, which included records regarding sex offenders. The County sent third-party notices to the individuals named in those records, notifying them of the records request. The County’s notices stated that while RCW 42.56.540 permitted the notification, the County did not believe the records were exempt.

In response to the notices, one of the individuals named in the records, John Doe, filed a lawsuit against the County and the requester, seeking to enjoin production of any record identifying him. In an answer to the complaint, the requester asserted a cross claim against the County for violations of the PRA. The cross claim contended the County was withholding records without an applicable exemption, that the County was not required to give John Doe notice, and that the County provided that notice in order to delay or deny release of the records.

Continue Reading Washington Court of Appeals Holds Public Agency Does Not Violate Washington Public Records Act by Withholding Records Pending Third-Party Notification

In the third of a series of cases, the Washington Court of Appeals in White v. Clark County [White III] holds ballot secrecy extends after mandatory retention periods. In White v. Clark County (2015) [White I] and White v. Skagit County (2015) [White II], the Court of Appeals previously held pre-tabulated ballots are exempt from production in response to a records request under Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA), chapter 42.56 RCW. Because the requests associated with White I and White II were for ballots stored within mandatory retention periods, the decisions did not directly control the request in White III for ballots stored after those periods.

Immediately after tabulation, “all ballots counted at a ballot counting center must be sealed in containers … and be retained for at least sixty days….” The sealed containers may only be opened by the canvassing board for the canvass, a recount, random checks, or by court order. Plaintiff Timothy White (the requester) argued that, after the mandatory retention period, ballots are no longer required to be kept in secured containers and are therefore subject to production in response to a public records request. The Court of Appeals disagreed:

Continue Reading Washington Court of Appeals Reaffirms: Ballots Are Secret

Are Your Policies and Practices Up-To-Date?

On July 23, 2017, recent legislation on public records will take effect, impacting local governments across the state. Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1594 and Engrossed House Bill 1595 make a number of changes to the Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (“PRA”), and Washington’s laws regarding preservation and destruction of public records, Chapter 40.14 RCW. In many cases, preparing for these changes will require revisions to agency policies on public records and updates to agency practices in processing requests.  Below are some highlights of the new legislation.

Charging for Electronic Records

Agencies will now be authorized to charge for the cost of producing electronic records, including the costs of delivery, the physical media device provided to the requester, and the costs of electronic file transfer or cloud-based data storage. Default fees are $0.10 per page for scanning records; $0.05 for every four files delivered to the requester electronically; and $0.10 per gigabyte for electronically transmitted records. Alternatively, an agency may charge a flat fee of up to $2.00 for the entire request as long as the agency reasonably estimates the cost will equal or exceed that amount.

Continue Reading New Public Records Act Legislation Taking Effect On July 23, 2017

In its second decision related to the Port of Vancouver’s lease of property for a new rail terminal facility to export petroleum products, 1 the Washington Supreme Court held that the Port appears to have violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, ch. 42.30 RCW (OPMA), in its discussion of the lease during five executive sessions held in 2013.

The case centers on RCW 42.30.110(1)(c), which permits public agencies to meet in executive session to “consider the minimum price at which real estate will be offered for sale or lease when public knowledge regarding such consideration would cause a likelihood of decreased price.” After considering the plain language of the statute, its legislative history, and the practical impacts of a narrow interpretation, the Court unanimously adopted a narrow reading of the statute:

Continue Reading Washington Supreme Court Holds That Executive Sessions On Real Estate Sales And Leases Must Be Focused On Minimum Price

By Jake Thomas from The Columbian

A Superior Court judge ruled Friday that Clark County violated the state’s public records act and must pay $15,750 in penalties for mishandling a dispute with former Councilor David Madore over the release of messages from his private cellphone.

The ruling from Judge Daniel Stahnke stems from a lawsuit filed last year by Community Planning Director Oliver Orjiako that alleged that the county didn’t adequately respond to his public records request for texts from Madore’s cellphone related to county business.

The lawsuit, which was related to harassment and whistleblower complaints Orjiako filed against Madore, cited Nissen v. Pierce County, a 2015 state Supreme Court decision that determined that communications generated on elected officials’ personal devices are public records if they pertain to public business.

Continue Reading What Happens When A County Elected Official Does Not Produce Records? Washington State Court Finds County Liable For Official’s Actions

On May 16, 2017, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed two public records bills passed by the legislature in April, Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1594 and Engrossed House Bill 1595.

EHB 1595 addresses the costs associated with responding to requests made under the Washington Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (“PRA”).

First, the bill permits agencies to charge for the cost of producing electronic documents, including costs of transmitting electronic records, the physical media device provided to the requester, and the costs of electronic file transfer or cloud-based data storage. Agencies may calculate their own actual costs, or charge default amounts set by the bill if making those calculations would be unduly burdensome. The bill’s default amounts are ten cents per page for scanning records; five cents for every four files delivered to the requester electronically; ten cents per gigabyte for electronically transmitted records; or a flat fee of up to two dollars as long as the agency reasonably estimates the cost will equal or exceed that amount.

Continue Reading Governor Signs Two Bills Amending Washington’s Public Records Act

The Application of Open Records Laws to Publicly Funded Science” by Lauren Kurtz, Natural Resources & Environment, American Bar Association Section of Environmental, Energy, and Resources, Spring 2017

The referenced article discusses the potential exemption from public disclosure of scientific research. Included is discussion of the well-known Washington Supreme Court decision in Progressive Animal Welfare Society v. University of Washington, 125 Wn.2d 243 (1994) (addressing internal, peer-review correspondence). See also, Servais v. Port of Bellingham, 127 Wn.2d 820 (1995) (explaining application of “research data” exemption in Washington’s Public Records Act).

Everett Fighting Inmate’s Request For Bikini Barista Videos

By The Associated Press from Tri-City Herald [Washington]

The city of Everett is suing to block a prison inmate’s request for copies of surveillance videos of bikini baristas.

The Daily Herald reports the city filed a lawsuit in Snohomish County Superior Court last week seeking to prevent Jamie Wallin from obtaining videos under the state’s public records act.

In court filings, Everett attorneys say the court shouldn’t “feed this repeat sex offender’s perversions” by giving him videos featuring young women stripping and engaging in sexual conduct.

Continue Reading Will Bikini Barista Videos Be Bared Under Public Records Act?

By John Gillie from The News Tribune

A three-year fight over public access to government-related emails stored in a former Puyallup city councilman’s private email account might be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Puyallup City Manager Kevin Yamamoto told the Puyallup City Council late Tuesday that the case, which the city has lost in two separate forums, involves a major constitutional question and should be resolved by the nation’s highest court.

Arthur West, an Olympia open-government advocate and plaintiff in the case, told the council that he too wants to see the city appeal the state courts’ decision.

“I think you guys should go to the Supreme Court, not because you have any chance — you have like a 2 percent chance of getting review accepted. The longer you delay this and the more unreasonably you fight, the worse it’s going to be for you,” he said.

Continue Reading Both Sides in Puyallup Email Records Case Want to Take Fight to U.S. Supreme Court

In a recent opinion, the Washington Attorney General concluded that governing bodies of public agencies may conduct their meetings exclusively by telephone conference call, so long as the call is open to the public under Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act, ch. 42.30 RCW (OPMA). AGO 2017 No. 4.

To comply with the OPMA, the Opinion suggests: “one or more specific locations can be designated as the meeting place; notification of the meeting place(s) and time can be provided in the manner outlined in RCW 42.30.075; the agenda can be posted online if required by RCW 42.30.077; and a speaker phone can be provided at the designated meeting place(s) to enable those attending to hear the public discussions and to provide testimony.” While other states (such as California and New York) specify standards for “remote” communication meetings, Washington does not. But according to the Attorney General, the absence of express standards is not controlling.

The AGO concludes by noting “a member of the public could conceivably bring legal action” under the OPMA, but that a successful challenge would be “unlikely.” AGO 2017 No. 4 cited to an earlier opinion (AGO 2014 No. 7), as well as judicial decisions from Maryland and Michigan in support of its position.