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Public Records Act

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The Public Records Act (PRA) requires that all public records maintained by state and local agencies be made available to all members of the public, with very narrow statutory exemptions.

Chapter 42.56 RCW provides the statutory framework for disclosure of public records, while the Washington State Attorney General’s Model Rules on Public Disclosure (chapter 44-14 WAC) provide practical, non-binding, advisory guidance on many issues that may not be clear in the language of the PRA itself.

State and local government agencies are required by chapter 40.14 RCW to retain records for different lengths of time depending on the content, function, and purpose of the record. The State Agencies Records Retention Schedules and Local Government Records Retention Schedules, approved by the state and local records committees and published by the Washington State Archives (a division of the Office of the Secretary of State), establish the time frames for records retention, archiving and destruction.

Individual agencies do have the option of requesting the state or local records committee approve an agency-specific records retention schedule.

If a public records request is made at a time when the record exists but is scheduled for destruction in the near future pursuant to the records retention schedule, the agency cannot destroy or delete the record until the records request is resolved (RCW 42.56.100).

Criminal penalties can be assessed for the intentional destruction of public records (RCW 40.16.010 and 40.16.020). 

What Records Are Public?

A public record is defined in RCW 42.56.010(3) as any writing that is prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local government agency, and which contains information that relates to the conduct of government, or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function.

The term “writing” is broadly defined to include not only traditional written records, but also photos, maps, videos, voicemails, webpage and social media content, emails, text messages and tweets (RCW 42.56.010(4)).

What Records Are Exempt?

Public Records Act exemptions are found in RCW 42.56.230-.470. Numerous other exemptions and disclosure prohibitions are sprinkled throughout other state and federal statutes.

For a comprehensive list of exemptions, see Appendix C of MRSC's Public Records Act publication. The Code Reviser’s Office also annually publishes a list of exemptions contained in the RCW, which can be accessed on the Attorney General’s Sunshine Committee webpage.

Statutory exemptions must be narrowly applied and (in addition to prohibitions) provide the only basis for withholding public records. Agencies cannot withhold records based on an assertion that release of the records will cause embarrassment to an agency official or employee, and, as a general matter, cannot withhold records based solely upon the identity of the requester (RCW 42.56.080 and RCW 42.56.550(3)).

For further guidance on exemptions and a quick summary of the exemptions most frequently encountered by local government agencies, see MRSC's page on Exemptions and Prohibitions for Local Government Records.

Tracking Records Requests

All agencies are required to track and log information with regard to public records requests per RCW 40.14.026(4) and report PRA metrics to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) per RCW 40.14.026(5).