The Washington Court of Appeals, Division Two, held that a Puyallup City Council member’s Facebook posts were not “public records” under Washington’s Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW, because the council member did not prepare the records within the scope of her official capacity as a member of the City Council.

The litigation centered on plaintiff Arthur West’ public records request to the City asking for all records sent to or received by City Council Member Julie Door’s “Friends of Julie Door” Facebook site. The City conducted a search of its own records and located one email, which it disclosed. The City did not disclose any posts on the “Friends of Julie Door” site.

Continue Reading Washington Court of Appeals Holds City Council Member’s Facebook Posts Are Not Public Records

The Washington State Attorney General filed an amicus brief on Wednesday, January 10, 2018, arguing that the Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW, applies to the Washington State Legislature and individual legislators. The brief was filed in a lawsuit pending in Thurston County Superior Court.

The plaintiffs in the matter, a group of news organizations including the Associated Press and The Seattle Times, submitted public records requests to individual legislators. In its own motion, the legislature takes the position that several amendments to the PRA, including amendments in 2007, removed legislators from the PRA. The 2007 amendments essentially removed the definition of “state legislative office” from the PRA by removing a cross reference to the campaign finance statutes, formerly Chapter 42.17 RCW.

Continue Reading Washington State Attorney General Argues Legislator Records are Subject to Public Disclosure

In Eggleston v. Asotin County, No. 34340-5-III, 2017 WL 6388976 (December 14, 2017), Division Three upheld the trial court’s decisions, holding that (1) an email between a contractor and subcontractor is not a “public record,” and therefore not subject to disclosure, and (2) preliminary drafts of a bridge project, which were not evaluative and contained no substantive comments, did not fall within the deliberative process exemption from disclosure, and thus should have been provided to requestor Eggleston. The court affirmed an award of $49,385.00 in penalties and $50,133.67 in attorney fees, staff fees and costs.

Asotin County engaged TD&H, an engineering firm, to replace a bridge. TD&H, in turn, was concerned about possible archaeological sites near the bridge, and consulted a geologist, Kevin Cannell, ultimately engaging him to perform a preliminary archaeological and cultural review of the proposed roadway for the bridge project. Before TD&H engaged him, Mr. Cannell had sent TD&H an email, offering his services. It is that email, from January 2002, that Eggleston sought.

Continue Reading An Email Between Vendor and Subvendor is Not a “Public Record”; Deliberative Process Exemption Does Not Apply Unless Opinions or Recommendations are Made

On November 17, 2017, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) issued guidance on the new reporting requirements enacted by the legislature in 2017. Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1594, which became effective July 23, 2017, requires all agencies to maintain a log of all public records requests submitted to the agency, and imposes more detailed reporting requirements for agencies that spend at least $100,000 on staff and legal costs associated with fulfilling public records requests in the past fiscal year. See RCW 40.14.026(4), (5). These detailed reporting requirements include the average time to acknowledge and close out records requests; the number of requests abandoned by requesters; the type of requester (i.e., law firm, media, incarcerated persons, etc.), to the extent that information is known; and the estimated agency staff time spent on each request. RCW 40.14.026(5).

The JLARC guidance document provides agencies direction on the detailed reporting requirements, including (1) how to calculate the $100,000 threshold and (2) for agencies exceeding the $100,000 threshold, what data they should be collecting for submission by July 1, 2018.

Continue Reading Public Record Reporting Requirements: Guidance Issued for Washington Public Agencies

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

Attorney General Opinion (AGO) 2017 No. 5 offers guidance on the confidentiality of information shared in an executive session of a public meeting under the Washington Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), ch. 42.30 RCW.

The AGO first concludes that participants may not disclose information discussed in a properly-convened executive session under the OPMA. While the OPMA does not expressly state so, the “duty on the part of participants in an executive session not to disclose the information discussed there is part and parcel of the concept of an executive session.” The AGO relied on out of state authority, treatises, and legislative history to support its conclusion that maintaining confidentiality “is a legal obligation, and not solely a moral one.” This duty only extends to information relating to the statutorily authorized purpose for convening the executive session and not already publicly disclosed.

The AGO also concludes that any officer covered by the Code of Ethics of Municipal Officers, RCW 42.23 RCW, violates that statute by disclosing information made confidential by the OPMA. The Code of Ethics prohibits disclosing “confidential information gained by reason of the officer’s position” and applies to “all elected and appointed officers of a municipality, together with all deputies and assistants of such an officer, and all persons exercising or undertaking to exercise any of the powers or functions of a municipal officer.” RCW 42.23.070(4), RCW 42.23.020(2).

Continue Reading Washington State Attorney General Opinion Addresses Confidentiality of Executive Sessions of Open Public Meetings

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

On Friday, July 7, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded that photographing, filming, or otherwise recording police activity in public “falls squarely within the First Amendment right of access to information.” With this holding, the Third Circuit joined the “growing consensus,” of the Circuit Courts of Appeal: the First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits have previously reached the same conclusion.

In Fields v. City of Philadelphia, No. 16-1650 (3d Cir. July 7, 2017), the Court addressed the claims of two plaintiffs. The first, Amanda Geraci, filmed police arresting a protester at a 2012 anti-fracking protest in Philadelphia. After she began filming, an officer pinned her against a wall, preventing her from recording the arrest. The second, Richard Fields, used his iPhone to take a photograph of police breaking up a 2013 party. An officer saw Fields taking a photograph and arrested him, issuing Fields a citation. Neither Fields nor Geraci interfered with the police.

Continue Reading Third Circuit Joins “Growing Consensus” to Hold First Amendment Protects Right to Record Police Officers Conducting Official Duties in Public

The Washington Court of Appeals declined to decide what it called an “interesting and important issue” regarding an agency’s obligation under the Washington Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA), to obtain records from a third party in response to a public records request. Because the record and briefing on appeal left “unanswered factual questions,” the court vacated the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC).

In Baker v. Department of Corrections, No. 34967-5-III (Wash. App. June 29, 2017), a DOC inmate requested copies of negotiable financial instruments deposited by DOC into his inmate trust subaccount. With the assistance of Bank of America (BOA), DOC manages this internal trust accounting system to assist with inmate finances, such as an inmate’s court-imposed financial obligations. DOC scans the front and back of negotiable instruments (e.g., checks or money orders) with BOA’s proprietary software and transmits the digital images to BOA. The digital images are not stored on DOC’s system. DOC then destroys the paper copies of the negotiable instruments after a certain period of time.

Continue Reading Documents Held by Third-Party Vendor: An “Interesting and Important” Washington Public Records Act Issue Left Unresolved

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