February 2013 Bar Bulletin
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February 2013 Bar Bulletin

Shedding Light on Public Records

By Karen Sutherland


Faced with the task of writing something on our Sun and Shadow theme this month, I thought a brief description of some frequently used resources for information on Washing­ton's "sunshine laws" would be appropriate.

For those of you who do not spend your time following public meetings, requesting public records or responding to public records requests, the aforementioned "sunshine laws" consist of the Washington Public Records Act (PRA), formerly known as the Public Disclosure Act (PDA), and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).1 Some of the free online resources for understanding the sunshine laws and obtaining records are listed below.

The Washington Attorney General's Office. Cases dealing with the law as it existed prior to July 1, 2006 (the PDA), are codified in RCW ch. 42.17; cases interpreting the law in effect after that date (the PRA) are codified in RCW ch. 42.56.

A conversion table showing the old PDA citations and their PRA counterparts is available on the attorney general's website.2 The website also has a helpful four-chapter "Open Government Internet Deskbook"3 that covers PRA general and procedural provisions and exemptions from disclosure laws, the OPMA's general and procedural provisions, and executive (closed) sessions.

The website also has information about the "Sunshine Committee"4 and links to other information sources, some of which are included below.

The Model Rules. These were developed by the Attorney General's Office as directed by RCW 42.56.570(2) to address the subjects of providing fullest assistance to requestors, fulfilling large requests in the most efficient manner, fulfilling requests for electronic records, and any other issues pertaining to public disclosure as determined by the attorney general.5

The Model Rules include helpful definitions for terms such as "public records,"6 and "reasonably locatable" and "reasonably translatable" electronic records.7 The Model Rules also address topics such as later-discovered records,8 the relationship of the PRA to court rules on discovery of electronically stored information,9 and a summary of exemptions.10 The rulemaking documents and comments are also available online.11

The Washington Association of Public Records Officers. This nonprofit corporation was founded to provide education on the PRA to public disclosure practitioners and to provide a forum for public records officers and those involved in responding to public records requests to discuss issues associated with the PRA.12

Its resources include RSS feeds, recent Washington cases, training opportunities, frequently asked questions, and cases and issues from other jurisdictions. It also has other resources that are members-only.

The Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC).13 The MSRC has a column called "Open Government Advisor"14 and a web page with articles about the PRA and OPMA, case law updates, and answers to frequently asked questions.

The MRSC also has a section on its website on the PRA that includes reference sources and documents, and links to related pages on topics including electronic public records retention, Internet, email and computer usage policies, social media, and records management.15

The Washington Coalition for Open Government. This group "represents individuals and organizations intent on preserving and protecting Washington's Open Government Laws - Open Records and Open Meetings."16 Its web page includes articles, white papers, citizen resources, laws and rules, case law, briefs and other resources.

Sunshine Week. This is "a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information." Sunshine Week is celebrated each year in mid-March to coincide with James Madison's birthday.17

Its partners include organizations ranging from the American Library Association and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists to the Center for Democracy & Technology and (apropos of this month's theme) the Sunlight Foundation, among many others. Links to each partner are included on the Sunshine Week web page along with other freedom of information resources.18

Individual public agencies also have guidance online about how to access their records, such as the University of Washington Law School Gallagher Law Library's guide to public records databases.19 For other links to public records, the Gallagher Law Library suggests Search Systems Public Records,20 which provides search results by state and by category, and BRB Public Records Search,21 which lists free resources, including records by state and category. BRB also has links to sites for various laws and record vendors.

The above is not a complete list, but should provide some general guidance to get you started on answering questions or conducting research related to the sunshine laws.

Karen Sutherland is the Chair of the Employment and Labor Law Practice Group of Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC. The information contained in this article is a broad overview and does not constitute legal advice. Sutherland can be reached at ksutherland@omwlaw.com.

1 RCW ch. 42.30.

2 http://www.atg.wa.gov/uploadedFiles/Home/About_the_Office/Open_Government/Open_Government_Internet_Manual/ConversionTableForNewStatuteNumbers[1].pdf

3 http://www.atg.wa.gov/OpenGovernment/InternetManual.aspx

4 Also known as the Public Records Exemp­tions Accountability Committee, which was tasked with annually reviewing all exemptions to the PRA. See http://www.atg.wa.gov/pressrelease.aspx?id=17690.

5 RCW 42.56.570.

6 WAC 44-14-03001.

7 WAC 44-14-05002.

8 WAC 44-14-04007.

9 WAC 44-14-05005.

10 WAC 44-14-06002.

11 http://www.atg.wa.gov/OpenGovernment/ModelRules.aspx

12 http://www.wa-pro.org/

13 http://www.mrsc.org

14 http://www.mrsc.org/focus/opengovadvisor/opengov0412.aspx

15 http://www.mrsc.org/subjects/legal/prd/prd.aspx

16 http://www.washingtoncog.org/

17 http://www.sunshineweek.org/About.aspx. Madison's birthday is March 16.

18 http://www.sunshineweek.org/Home.aspx

19 https://lib.law.washington.edu/content/research/wapubrec

20 http://publicrecords.searchsystems.net/

21 http://www.brbpub.com/


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