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Report shows that large and small governments overcome significant challenges to efficiently implement the Public Records Act

Olympia, WA – The Public Records Act, a law that’s more than four decades old, poses challenges to large and small governments, yet government entities are investing significant time and resources to overcome the inefficiencies created by the act. These are some of many conclusions from a recent report on the effect of public records requests by the Washington State Auditor’s Office (SAO).

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) will hold a meeting on Wednesday in Olympia to hear about the report’s findings. Representatives from the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) plan to testify that the report duly points out that advances in technology and increases in the volume and complexity of records requests potentially undermine the Public Records Act, which was adopted in 1972 by Washington State voters.

“Every day, elected county and city officials ensure transparency in government and serve as stewards of public resources by effectively implementing the Public Records Act,” said Peter B. King, AWC Chief Executive Officer. “We need to bring the act into the 21st century – it’s the only way to fulfill its original purpose and ensure the wise use of taxpayer dollars.”

The report shows that three types of governments received 89 percent of the 285,000 public records requests in the most recent year – with cities and towns receiving 40 percent; state agencies, commissions or boards receiving 26 percent; and counties receiving 23 percent.

It also points to the fact that many requests are straightforward and governments are able to fulfil most requests quickly. Seventeen percent of requests were reported to be fulfilled the same day, 47 percent within five days, and 71 percent in less than 21 days.

But some requests are far more complicated than simply providing a copy of a report or pulling a specific piece of correspondence, said Josh Weiss, WSAC Policy and Legislative Relations Director.

The SAO report states that the number of requests grew 36 percent in the past five years, 81 percent of respondents reported receiving increasingly complex requests. Requests for GPS data, police dash cam videos, and other complex electronic data require more than just making copies. These requests require significant research and computer coding to extract the records being requested. Additionally, it takes time to review the records to make sure private information is protected and not disclosed.

The costs associated with fulfilling requests are also growing – in fact by 70 percent in the last five years. The SAO attributes the increasing costs to a growing number of requests, increasing complexity of those requests, and investments in technology to address both of those issues.

The PRA’s intricate requirements combined with increasingly complex records and records requests have created confusion among government officials. “The complexity and fear of litigation are at the forefront of public records officers’ minds,” said Candice Bock, AWC Government Relations Advocate. “The public and governments would benefit from clarifying portions of the PRA and creating alternatives to costly court battles.” Bock went on to state that alternative dispute resolution programs have proven successful in other states and would be beneficial to all parties.

“Not taking action – and choosing not to modernize this law – will only erode government transparency and efficiency,” added Weiss. He went on to explain that “updates” are being made by the courts on a case-by-case basis that lacks cohesiveness. There are now more than 400 exemptions that add to confusion and workload.

“The Legislature needs to take closer look at the PRA and provide needed updates that reflect 21st century realities,” concluded Bock. “It’s the best way to fulfill the act’s original purpose, provide government transparency, and make wise use of taxpayer dollars.”

The Association of Washington Cities (AWC) serves its members through advocacy, education and services. Founded in 1933, AWC is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan corporation that represents Washington's cities and towns before the state legislature, the state executive branch and with regulatory agencies. The AWC also provides training, technical assistance, and Member Pooling Programs such as the Employee Benefit Trust, Risk Management Service Agency, Workers’ Comp Retro, and the Drug and Alcohol Consortium.

The Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) is a voluntary, nonprofit association serving all of Washington’s 39 counties. WSAC members include elected county commissioners, councilors, council members and executives from all Washington State counties.


Media contacts:
Alicia Seegers Martinelli, Communications Director
Association of Washington Cities
(360) 753-4137

Derek Anderson, Communications and Member Services Director
Washington State Association of Counties
(360) 489-3020