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

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

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?

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.

A public employee’s right to privacy was analyzed in some detail by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a decision entered October 18, 2016. Pa. State Educ. Ass’n v. Commonwealth. See 41 IER Cases 1310 (Pa. 2016). The Court considered the history of that state’s Right to Know Law (RTKL) as well as federal and state constitutional protections. The court’s deep dig into the privacy issues extends back to 1890 and a regularly cited law review article, Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193 (1890). There, Warren and Brandeis stated that all citizens have the “right to immunity of the person,” the “right to be let alone,” and the “right to one’s personality.” Sometimes referred to as the “right of informational privacy,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court applied such a right to the home addresses of public school employees. Although the Court struggled with the argument that the RTKL changed the analysis, a majority of the Court determined that the constitutional right to privacy must be considered in any balancing of claims for public records disclosure under the RTKL. As to employee’s home addresses, the Court found no basis to overcome the constitutionally protected privacy interest.

Continue Reading Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Public School Employees Have Constitutional Right to Privacy in Their Home Addresses

The Washington State Court of Appeals recently held that the First and Fourth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution, do not afford an individual privacy interest in public records contained in an elected official’s private email account.

Arthur West submitted a public records request to the City of Puyallup for communications received or posted through City Council Member Steve Vermillion’s private website and email account that related to matters of City governance. Vermillion had used the account during his election campaign and occasionally received emails from constituents and the City, which he forwarded to his City account when an official response was warranted. In response to the request, Vermillion and the City declined to provide records located in Vermillion’s private email account. West sued to compel disclosure under the Public Records Act. West v. Vermillion, No. 48601-6-II (Wash Ct. App., Nov. 8, 2016. The Superior Court ruled in favor of West and ordered Vermillion, under penalty of perjury, to produce records within the scope of the request.

Continue Reading Private Account But Public Records: Public Records Located in City Council Member’s Private Email Account Are Not Protected From Disclosure By the State and Federal Constitutions

Plaintiff Arthur West filed suit under Washington State’s Open Public Meetings Act, ch. 42.30 RCW (“OPMA”), against the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma for excluding West and the public from a series of meetings held between the two ports in 2014. In West v. Seattle Port Commission, et al., No. 73014-2-I (July 5, 2016), the Washington Court of Appeals held that West had standing to pursue his claims under the OPMA, but also held that the Federal Shipping Act of 1984, 46 U.S.C. §§ 40101-41309, preempted application of the OPMA to the ports’ meetings. The Court therefore affirmed dismissal of West’s claims.

Standing Under the OPMA
In holding that West had standing to bring suit, the Court first emphasized that the standing requirements in the OPMA are very broad, allowing “[a]ny person” to bring an enforcement action for violation of the Act. See RCW 42.30.120, .130. It also rejected application of federal standing requirements in this context, explaining that federal case law on standing does not automatically apply to Washington courts interpreting Washington law. The Court of Appeals concluded that the ports had failed to show that West lacked standing in this case.

Continue Reading Federal Shipping Act Preemption and Standing Addressed by Washington Court of Appeals Under State’s Open Public Meetings Act

In White v. City of Lakewood, No. 47079-9-II (May 25, 2016), Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals applied a form of “mailbox rule” to the state Public Records Act (PRA) in defining when records have been “produced” sufficient to trigger the PRA’s one-year statute of limitations. Additionally, the Court reiterated that the statute of limitations is not triggered by an invalid claim of exemption.

White filed three public records requests with the City of Lakewood for documents pertaining to a search warrant. The city withheld responsive records pursuant to the categorical exemption for open and active police investigations under RCW 42.56.240 and Newman v. King County, 133 Wn.2d 565, 947 P.2d 712 (1997), although it later produced certain documents. White filed suit challenging the city’s response to all three requests.

Continue Reading Washington Court Of Appeals Determines When Records Have Been “Produced” Under Public Records Act To Trigger Statute Of Limitations