PRA Inquiries into Washington State's "Shadow Governments"

Arthur West continues his efforts to provide Washington’s appellate courts with the opportunity to define the scope and breadth of the Public Records Act. Rather than keep all the fun for itself, the Supreme Court graciously shared the opportunity to decide Mr. West’s latest appeal with Division II, transferring Mr. West’s request for direct review to the lower court. Division II affirmed the trial court in an unpublished opinion, West v. Gregoire, No. 42779-6-II (Sep. 11, 2012).

Apparently interested in reviewing documents relating to the Washington State Association of Counties, Mr. West submitted a memo to the Governor with the title “RE: ATTENDANCE AT SECRET SHADOW GOVERNMENT EVEN, AKA (WSAC 2009 ANNUAL CONFERENCE).” (Emphasis in Original). The Governor’s office did not immediately recognize that the memo contained a request for public records, an error Mr. West pointed out two weeks after submitting the memo. The Governor’s office offered to provide an estimate of response time within two days, but Mr. West stated that he had a litigation deadline six days away. The Governor’s office emailed him 57 pages of responsive documents the next day, then provided an additional 299 pages of documents two weeks later.

The Governor’s office withheld, under a claim of executive privilege, a document authored by one of the Governor’s Executive Policy Advisors. Mr. West sued under the PRA. After an in-camera review, the trial court concluded that the document contained no advice to the Governor and was thus subject to disclosure regardless of whether executive privilege exists in Washington. The Governor’s office disclosed the document that day.

The trial court awarded Mr. West $25/day in statutory penalties, excluding 22 days which the trial court concluded was a reasonable period for the Governor’s office to respond. West petitioned the Supreme Court for direct review of the penalty, and the Governor’s office cross-appealed. The Supreme Court transferred the case to Division II, which affirmed on all points. The court concluded that the statutory language providing that the prevailing requester is entitled to a statutory penalty “for each day that he or she was denied the right to inspect or copy said public record” necessarily included a reasonable time period for the government to respond to a request. That is, the government does not “deny” the right to inspect a record during the time reasonably necessary to gather responsive documents.

Both parties appealed the award of a $25/day penalty. Division 2 concluded that under the list of mitigating and aggravating factors contained in the Yousoufian V case, the amount was not "manifestly unreasonable" and affirmed.

New Jersey League of Municipalities a Public Agency Subject to Open Public Records Act

The New Jersey League of Municipalities (League) is a non-profit, unincorporated association representing over 500 of New Jersey’s municipalities. The League was authorized by the New Jersey Legislature in 1915. One of its functions is serving as a lobbying organization for the state’s municipalities. Its employees are eligible for membership in the New Jersey Public Employee’s Retirement System.

In response to a request for records, the League claimed that it was not a public agency subject to the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The trial court and Court of Appeals agreed with the League. On August 23, 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower courts and found that the League was a public agency. Fair Share Housing Center, Inc. v. New Jersey State League of Municipalities, No. 066228. The court distinguished the term “public body” under that state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), from the term “public agency,” which it found far more encompassing under the OPRA. In contrast to Washington State court decisions, the fact that the New Jersey League was found not to engage in “governmental functions” was not relevant to the inquiry. See the discussion of West v. Washington State Association of Counties (2011) and Telford v. Thurston County Board of Commissioners (1999) in the posting of June 2, 2011: “Washington Association of County Officials Subject to Open Public Meetings Act.” One of the factors considered by Washington courts in determining whether an entity is an “agency” or the “functional equivalent” of an agency and subject to the Washington Public Disclosure Laws is whether the entity performs a governmental function.