The first quarter of 2018 has seen a number of open government rulings and developments in Washington state. From a flurry of court decisions, legislative action, and a veto by the governor, to decisions addressing exemptions for education and law enforcement records, the summary below recaps recent legal developments under Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA), ch. 42.56 RCW.
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.
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.
On September 16, 2010, the Washington Supreme Court issued a comprehensive PRA decision in a case brought by one of its own. Sanders v. State, _____Wn.2d____, 2010 WL 3584463.
Since Justice Sanders of the Washington Supreme Court was the appellant, he recused himself, as did Justice Alexander. The Supreme Court decision was unanimous, authored by Justice Stephens.
The case involved Justice Sanders’ request for all documents held by the State in relation to his visit to McNeil Island. That visit resulted in a subsequent disciplinary proceeding against the Justice. Justice Sanders demanded that the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) release numerous additional documents the AGO had withheld as exempt. The Justice also sought the release of all the documents on grounds that the AGO had waived any exemption by not strictly complying with the PRA requirement that the government agency “explain” the basis for any claimed exemption. Justice Sanders also asked for penalties and attorney fees under the Act.
David Koenig, a regular plaintiff in Public Records Act cases, sought certain records from Thurston County. The records were a Victim Impact Statement and a Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative (SSOSA) evaluation. The documents are used in evaluation and sentencing of sex offenders.
The trial court ordered the documents sealed. But Koenig’s request had been sent to the Prosecutor’s Office, and not to the court. The Prosecutor’s Office denied disclosure under RCW 42.56.240(1), which exempts from public inspection and copying,
“specific investigative records compiled by investigative, law enforcement, and penology agencies….the non-disclosure of which is essential to effective law enforcement or for the protection of any person’s right to privacy.”
The Washington Court of Appeals ruled, on April 6, 2010, in a divided opinion that Victim Impact Statements are exempt under the PRA. But, the court held that SSOSA evaluations must be disclosed after redaction of any identifying information regarding the victim and certain other third parties. Notwithstanding the difficulty in determining the exemption from disclosure of these particular public records, the court determined that it had no discretion regarding the award of penalties to Koenig under RCW 42.56.550(4). The matter was remanded to the trial court to set the amount of penalties that Koenig may receive.
To view the court’s decision, click HERE.
On Thursday, October 15, 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order overturning a decision of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Washington that barred the Washington Secretary of State from any public release of documents showing names and contact information of referendum petition signers. The particular case involved Washington Referendum Measure No. 71 (“R-71”). See our September 25, 2009 blog posting for more information regarding the earlier ruling of the District Court.
On the same day, the Secretary of State’s Election Division issued a narrative explaining why the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Attorney General’s Office, treats initiative and referendum petitions as public records subject to disclosure under the Washington Public Records Act.
Despite the Ninth Circuit ruling, the names have not been released due to a temporary restraining order granted by a Thurston County Superior Court judge blocking the State from releasing initiative petitions under the Public Records Act. The District Court decision was issued in response to a lawsuit, seeking to stop the release of petitions, brought by Tim Eyman, a well known sponsor of initiatives and referendums.