Washington Supreme Court Holds Nonprofit Zoo Operator Not a Public Agency for Public Records Act Compliance

The City of Seattle owns, and for many years operated, the Woodland Park Zoo. Acting under statutory authorization, the City contracted with the Woodland Park Zoo Society, a privately formed not-for-profit corporation to manage and operate the Zoo. Following the lead of earlier decisions of the Washington Court of Appeals and those of other states’ courts, the Washington Supreme Court confirmed the application of a four-part balancing test to determine whether an entity is the "functional equivalent" of an agency and therefore subject to the state’s Sunshine Laws. Fortgang v. Woodland Park Zoo, No. 92846-1 (Jan. 12, 2017). The four factors (known in Washington as the "Telford test") are:

  1. whether the entity performs a government function;
  2. the extent to which the government funds the entity’s activities;
  3. the extent of government involvement in the entity’s activities; and
  4. whether the entity was created by the government.

The Zoo Society operates the Woodland Park Zoo under an operations and management contract with the City of Seattle. The case arose from the Zoo Society’s refusal to provide documents to a requester seeking information about the Zoo’s former elephant exhibit. The Zoo Society denied that it was an agency subject to the state’s Public Records Act (PRA), and the requester brought suit. Of the four Telford factors, the Court found only the second to be inconclusive. Under the Telford analysis, the Court held that the Zoo Society is not the functional equivalent of a government agency.

Applying the first factor, the Court held that operation of a zoo is not an inherently governmental function. On the second factor, the Court observed that "the type of funding matters and, specifically, that an ordinary fee-for-services model typically weighs against functional equivalency....But Washington cases also suggest that the percentage of funds attributable to public sources is the foremost consideration." The City provides approximately 30 percent of the Zoo Society’s annual funding. The Court found the second factor to be inconclusive.

On the third factor, the Court applied a "day-to-day" operations analysis to find that the City did not exercise operational control over the Zoo Society. The Zoo Society’s board acted in total independence from the City. In prior cases, a local government’s retention of substantial control through public official seats on the respective boards resulted in findings of significant government involvement under the third Telford factor.

With respect to the fourth factor, the Zoo Society was incorporated solely by private individuals, so the Court would not attribute its "origin" to special legislation or other government action. The Court explained: "The Telford test is designed to prevent the government from operating in secrecy via a private surrogate. It is not designed to sweep within PRA coverage every private organization that contracts with government. This remains true even if the contracts in question are governed or authorized by statute." Therefore, neither the City nor any other public agency subject to the PRA "created" the Zoo Society under the fourth factor.

Applying all four factors "on balance," and with only one factor inconclusive, the Court held that the Zoo Society is not the functional equivalent of a government agency under the Telford test. Accordingly, it is not an "agency" subject to PRA requirements.

Washington Association of County Officials Subject to Open Public Meetings Act

In 1959, the Washington legislature recognized the Washington Association of County Officials (WACO) as a statewide “coordinating agency” of county officials. In Washington State, many counties have independently elected assessors, auditors, clerks, coroners, sheriffs, treasurers and prosecuting attorneys. These positions are separate from the separately elected county commissioners or county councilmembers and executive. WACO is also distinct from the Washington State Association of Counties, Washington (WSAC), Public Ports Association and similar organizations. In 2008, a claim was brought against WACO claiming that it was subject to the Washington Open Public Meetings Act or “OPMA.” OPMA had been adopted in 1971 as part of a package of open government provisions, including campaign finance and public record disclosure.

The Court of Appeals in 1999 determined that both WACO and WSAC were subject to the public records portions of the 1971 initiative. Telford v. Thurston County Board of Commissioners, 95 Wn. App. 149, 974 P.2d 886 (1999). Questions remain, however, regarding the application of that law to the Public Records Act and OPMA. See Attorney General Opinion 2002 No. 2, finding the Telford analysis must be applied on a factual basis to determine the specific application of the components of the Public Disclosure Act to any particular entity, such as WSAC. The Telford court considered the following four factors to determine the application of the campaign finance provisions to an entity: 1) the entity’s governmental function; 2) the entity’s government funding; 3) governmental control over the entity; and, 4) the entity’s origin.

On June 1, 2011, the Court of Appeals in West v. WSAC, Court of Appeals No. 39366-2, applied those same factors to determine that WACO was also subject to OPMA. The court recognized that the OPMA portion of the Public Disclosure Act does not define “state agency.” This differs from the campaign finance and public records provisions of the public disclosure laws. “Nevertheless, because we construe the OPMA liberally to reach its intended purpose, we hold that for purposes of the OPMA, a “state agency” may be an association or organization created by or pursuant to statute which serves a statewide public function.” The court relied on the legislature’s formal recognition of WACO in 1959 – at WACO’s own request – in support of its determination that WACO was a public agency subject to the OPMA. Courts in other jurisdictions, however, have reached different results. See our March 31, 2011 blog posting.
 

Tennessee Supreme Court: Public University Faculty Non-Profit Corporation Is Not An "Agency" Under Public Records Act

A group of internists at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine (UTCOM) organized as a tax-exempt, non-profit corporation, identified as the Internal Medicine Educational Foundation (IMEF). The purpose of IMEF is to "provide educational programs, research and support services for the internal medicine residency program" at UTCOM. When the IMEF refused plaintiff's request for records, plaintiff sued under the Tennessee Public Records Act. Like Washington State, Tennessee applies its PRA to those agencies described by the law and to entities that are the "functional equivalent of a government agency." Functional equivalency is determined by certain factors:

(1) whether the entity performs a governmental function;

(2) the extent of government funding;

(3) the extent of government control over the entity; and

(4) whether the entity was created by legislative act.

Those factors are then applied under a "totality of the circumstances" test to determine if the entity is the functional equivalent of an agency. Applying the factors, the Tennessee Supreme Court on February 28, 2011 found that IMEF was not the functional equivalent of an agency. As a result, IMEF was not subject to that state's PRA.

Washington's Public Records Act, at Chapter 42.56 RCW, similarly may be applied to an entity when found to be the functional equivalent of an agency. See Telford v. Thurston County Board of Commissioners, 95 Wash.App. 149, 974 P.2d 886 (1999). In Telford, the Court of Appeals held that while the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) and the Washington Association of County Officials (WACO) were not agencies as such, they were the “functional equivalent” of agencies and therefore subject to the campaign finance provisions of the Washington Public Disclosure Act. The court in Telford did not address the separate provisions of the Public Disclosure Act relating to public records (now, the Washington Public Records Act). And, the decision did not address other entities similar to WSAC and WACO.

In 2002, the Washington Attorney General issued a formal opinion in response to an inquiry regarding the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and other organizations. See AGO 2002 No. 2 (April 10, 2002). In that formal Opinion, the Attorney General examined whether entities whose membership includes public agencies were separately subject to the Public Records Act. The opinion examined the Telford analysis (factors similar to those applied by the Tennessee Court), but concluded that any application of the statute to “AWC in a public records context must await the development of an actual factual situation to which the principles set forth in the statute, as interpreted in Telford, might be applied.”

Subsequent Washington cases have reached divergent results, based primarily on the extent of an entity's government funding and governmental authority. For example, in Spokane Research & Defense Fund v. West Central Community Dev. Ass’n, 133 Wn. App. 602 (2006), the court found that a contract vendor in a city park was not the functional equivalent of a public agency. But, in Clarke v. Tri-Cities Animal Care and Control Shelter, 144 Wn. App. 185 (2008), the court found a non-profit entity providing enforcement of animal control laws under contract with city and county governments was the functional equivalent of an agency.
 

Don't Go Off the Deep End by Forgetting the OPMA

The attached news report from Port Angeles illustrates the problems of forgetting that joint agencies created by a combination of local governments are generally subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, to the same extent as the founding agencies themselves. Port Angeles pool director choice to be a 'do-over; Open Meetings Act is factor

In this case the board of a Pool District acted to hire a new director in a closed session after interviews. The Pool District was created by the City of Port Angeles and Clallam County The District Board apparently overlooked the Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 RCW; “OPMA”) when it did so. The solution was to dry off, step back from the edge and dive anew into the hiring process – this time in public.

This circumstance serves as a needed reminder that new, combination agencies created by public agencies are also governed by the Open Public Meetings Act. While the definition section of the OPMA (RCW 42.30.020) does not specifically include an agency created by two or more public agencies, it does include language that covers “[a]ny subagency of a public agency which is created by or pursuant to a statute, ordinance or other legislative acts. . . .” RCW 42.30.020(c).

Washington courts have broadly interpreted both the OPMA and the Public Records Act (Chapter 42.56 RCW), as the legislation for both acts directs. An example of the breadth of this interpretation is Telford v. Thurston County Board of Commissioners, 95. Wn. App. 149, 974 P.2d 886 (1999). In Telford, the Court of Appeals held that the Washington Association of Counties and the Washington Association of County Officials were both public agencies for purposes of the Campaign Finance part of the Public Records Act. This case gave rise to what has come to be know as the “Telford test” for determining what is a public agency: (1) whether the entity performs a public function; (2) the level of government funding; (3) the extent of government involvement or regulation; and (4) whether the entity was created by government.

Here, the Pool District meets each of those four parts of the “Telford test.” [See, for example, Clarke v. Tri-Cities Animal Care & Control Shelter, 144 Wn. App. 185, 181 P.3d 881 (2008), applying the “Telford test, to hold that the Animal Shelter – even though a privately run corporation – was a public agency for purposes of the Public Records Act.] The OPMA therefore applies to the Pool District, and a public reconsideration of the District’s hiring decision was the right thing to do.