The Small Point Guide to Public Records

Citizens can control their government only if they remain informed about the decisions their government officials are making.

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:

  1. First, just ask for the information informally without designating it as a records request, and assume the district will cooperate, as they should. We have asked for information from the Hospital District, the Water Board, the Fire District, the Parks Board, and the Whatcom County Sheriff's office. The Water Board provided the information we asked for in less than an hour. The Sheriff's office provided lengthy and detailed answers to our many questions and were helpful and responsive throughout. Only the Hospital District refused to respond informally.
  2. The district may ask you to file a formal records request even if they intend to cooperate. For example, the Fire District asked us to file a records request many years ago for information we asked for informally. This may be because it's better for a district if some communications are on the record. In a case such as the Hospital District where they refuse to respond, a formal request is your only option
  3. To file the request, send an email or letter specifying exactly what information is being requested and in what form you would prefer to receive it (email, viewing at the district's office, etc.). The district is required to provide information about who to contact for records requests, normally on their web site. (Say, Parks Board. Have you considered putting up a web site? It's easier than putting up a new library.)
  4. The district must acknowledge your request within five days. If they cannot provide all the information requested during that time, they must provide an estimate of when the information will be provided.

Here is more specific guidance from the Washington State Attorney General's web site.

What Records Are Public?

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.

What Public Records are Available for Inspection?

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.

How to Request Records

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.

Agency Response to a Request

Agencies are required to respond promptly to your request. Within five business days after receiving a request, the agency must either:

  • Provide the record(s);
  • Acknowledge your request and give you a reasonable estimate of how long it will take to fully respond; or
  • Deny the request in writing, with reasons for the denial (this could also include a denial of part of your request and granting of the remainder). The agency must tell you the specific exemption or other law it relies upon for its denial.

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.

An Agency Is Not Required to Create Records

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.

"The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty."

–James Madison

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