The Small Point Guide to Public Records
That important principle underlies Washington's open public records and meeting laws.
The laws, which are now more than four decades old, are intended to give us an informed electorate that can evaluate the performance of elected officials and in order to ensure an honest, competent and responsive government.
The laws are based on three important principles:
We requested records from the Hospital District because they refused to answer our questions in person and in meetings, and they refused to reply to emails. The records we requested were directly associated with our concerns about the district's financial management and governance (or lack thereof), and whether the Unity Care-run clinic was providing the services the whole community was entitled to. All of these concerns turned out to be well founded.
This is exactly the kind of situation the Public Records Act was intended for: citizen oversight of a taxing district that was being run more for the benefit of its own staff and contractor than for the taxpayers, and that was deliberately hiding information from the public.
For anyone seeking information from a district, here are our suggestions:
Here is more specific guidance from the Washington State Attorney General's web site.
A public record is any state or local record relating to the conduct of government or the performance of a governmental function, and which is prepared, used, or retained by any state or local agency.
All records maintained by state and local agencies are available for public inspection unless law specifically exempts them. You are entitled to access to public records under reasonable conditions, and to copies of those records upon paying the costs of making the copy. In most cases, you do not have to explain why you want the records. However, specific information may be necessary to process your request. An agency may require information necessary to establish if disclosure would violate certain provisions of law.
A request for public records can be initiated in person; by mail, email, or fax; or over the telephone. Each state and local agency is required to provide assistance to citizens in obtaining public records and to explain how the agency’s public records process works. If you request certain public records, the agency must make them available to you for inspection or copying (unless they are exempt from disclosure) during customary office hours of that agency.
You should make your request as specific as you can. A written request helps to identify specific records you wish to inspect. Many agencies have a public records request form they will ask you to use.
After your inspection of records, you may identify those records you desire and, if copying does not disrupt agency operations, copies can be promptly made for you. The agency may enact reasonable rules to protect records from damage or disorganization and to prevent disruption of agency operations.
Each state state or local agency is required to establish an index as an aid to locating public records. The index is to be published and made available to those who request it.
Agencies are required to respond promptly to your request. Within five business days after receiving a request, the agency must either:
If a request is not clear, the agency may ask you for further clarification.
If an agency denies your request, you may ask the agency to conduct an internal review of its denial within two business days after denial. At that time, the agency’s denial is considered final and you can seek court review or, in some cases, review by the Attorney General’s Office.
While, in general, an agency must provide access to existing public records in its possession, an agency is not required to collect information or organize data to create a record not existing at the time of the request. The more precisely you can identify the record you seek, the more responsive the agency can be.
There is no fee for inspecting public records, but the agency may charge a fee for the actual costs of copying the records.
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