WSR 07-09-074



[ Filed April 17, 2007, 11:14 a.m. ]

     Original Notice.

     Preproposal statement of inquiry was filed as WSR 06-13-025.

     Title of Rule and Other Identifying Information: Model rules for providing electronic records under the Public Records Act, and housecleaning of WAC 44-14-04004 (4)(b)(i) and (ii).

     Hearing Location(s): General Administration Building, 1st Floor Auditorium, 210 11th Avenue S.W., Olympia, WA, on May 30, 2007, at 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

     Date of Intended Adoption: June 15, 2007.

     Submit Written Comments to: Greg Overstreet, P.O. Box 40100, Olympia, WA 98504-0100, e-mail, fax (360) 664-0228, by June 5, 2007.

     Assistance for Persons with Disabilities: Contact Danielle French by May 30, 2007, fax (360) 664-0228 or e-mail [].

     Purpose of the Proposal and Its Anticipated Effects, Including Any Changes in Existing Rules: BACKGROUND: RCW 42.56.570(2), amended in 2005, requires the office of the attorney general to adopt by rule an advisory model rule for state and local agencies, as defined in RCW 42.17.020, addressing the following subjects:

     (a) Providing fullest assistance to requestors;

     (b) Fulfilling large requests in the most efficient manner;

     (c) Fulfilling requests for electronic records; and

     (d) Any other issues pertaining to public disclosure as determined by the attorney general.

     On January 31, 2006, the attorney general adopted such an advisory model rule, chapter 44-14 WAC, WSR 06-04-079. However, as we explained, because the controversy over the proposed rules relating to electronic rules, those provisions were not included in the final rule. Instead, we commenced a new rule-making proceeding seeking further comments on a rule relating to electronic records, WSR 06-04-078 (January 31, 2006). The attorney general's office renoticed this preproposal statement of inquiry, WSR 06-13-025 (June 13, 2006).

     In response to these notices, the attorney general received over two hundred pages of written comments and held several meetings with interested parties. We now publish this notice of proposed rule making pursuant to RCW 34.05.320 (CR-102) and propose this draft for comment.

     SCOPE AND INTENT OF PROPOSED RULE: As stated in the preproposal statement of inquiry filed to commence the proceeding that led to the adoption of the initial set of model rules in January 2006, these rules "will collect and describe best practices on public records processing to aid requestors and agencies." WSR 05-16-120.

     The application of the 1972 Public Records Act to 2007 technology is difficult. Though the act recognizes that electronically stored records fall within the scope of the act (see RCW 42.17.020(41)), the technological advances since 1972 certainly have surpassed anything envisioned by the drafters. Except for some modest recognition of the need for agencies to provide records online (see RCW 43.105.250), the legislature has not provided much clarification on how to apply the act to some electronic records issues.

     Nevertheless, the legislature has tasked the attorney general with providing guidance on the topic of requests for electronic records to the state and local agencies. Because some of the statutory ambiguities have not been resolved, locating and describing a precise legal line between what the act requires state and local agencies to provide and what the act does not require is difficult. This proposed model rule relating to electronic records need not, and does not, attempt to define that line with precision. Rather, this proposed model rule is intended to provide state and local agencies with a standard of practice that would fulfill the agencies' obligations to adopt "reasonable rules and regulations" that would both implement the policies of the Public Records Act and "provide for the fullest assistance to inquirers and the most timely possible action on requests for information." RCW 42.56.100. In our view, agencies that provide such "fullest assistance" in conformance with this model rule will comply with both the letter and the spirit of the Public Records Act.

     This model rule also does not purport to provide detailed guidance to state or local agencies on the possible interplay between access to electronic records under the Public Records Act and access to such records under the Civil Rules for Superior Court. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were recently amended to provide guidance to parties in litigation on their respective obligations to provide access to, or produce, "electronically stored information." The obligations under those federal rules (and under any state-imposed rules or procedures that adopt the federal rules) may be different than those required under the Public Records Act. It may be desirable, in the future, to revisit some aspects of this model rule to accommodate lessons learned from implementation of the federal rules. Though this model rule does not address all litigation-related issues, it does provide, in a comment section, caution to agencies to take care that, if they anticipate that records are being requested in anticipation of litigation, accurate copies are made so there can be no question later of what was and what was not produced in response to the request in the event that electronic records, or records derived from them, become issues in court.

     ANTICIPATED EFFECT: The anticipated effect of the model rules for electronic records is to streamline compliance, standardize best practices throughout the state, and reduce litigation.

     Reasons Supporting Proposal: The legislature directed the attorney general to adopt the Public Records Act model rules on a number of topics, including special issues involving requests for and disclosure of electronic records.

     Statutory Authority for Adoption: Section 4, chapter 483, Laws of 2005, amending RCW 42.56.570.

     Statute Being Implemented: Chapter 42.56 RCW.

     Rule is not necessitated by federal law, federal or state court decision.

     Name of Proponent: Washington state attorney general's office, governmental.

     Name of Agency Personnel Responsible for Drafting, Implementation and Enforcement: Greg Overstreet, 1125 Washington Street S.E., Olympia, WA, (360) 586-4802.

     No small business economic impact statement has been prepared under chapter 19.85 RCW. The electronic model rules apply only to governmental agencies and not to businesses.

     A cost-benefit analysis is not required under RCW 34.05.328. Cost-benefit analysis is not required for the attorney general's office, RCW 34.05.328 (5)(a)(i).

April 17, 2007

Rob McKenna

Attorney General


AMENDATORY SECTION(Amending WSR 06-04-079, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06)

WAC 44-14-04003   Responsibilities of agencies in processing requests.   (1) Similar treatment and purpose of the request. The act provides: "Agencies shall not distinguish among persons requesting records, and such persons shall not be required to provide information as to the purpose for the request" (except to determine if the request is for a commercial use or would violate another statute prohibiting disclosure). RCW 42.17.270/ The act also requires an agency to take the "most timely possible action on requests" and make records "promptly available." RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100 and 42.17.270/42.56.080. However, treating requestors similarly does not mean that agencies must process requests strictly in the order received because this might not be providing the "most timely possible action" for all requests. A relatively simple request need not wait for a long period of time while a much larger request is being fulfilled. Agencies are encouraged to be flexible and process as many requests as possible even if they are out of order.3

     An agency cannot require a requestor to state the purpose of the request (with limited exceptions). RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. However, in an effort to better understand the request and provide all responsive records, the agency can inquire about the purpose of the request. The requestor is not required to answer the agency's inquiry (with limited exceptions as previously noted).

     (2) Provide "fullest assistance" and "most timely possible action." The act requires agencies to adopt and enforce reasonable rules to provide for the "fullest assistance" to a requestor. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. The "fullest assistance" principle should guide agencies when processing requests. In general, an agency should devote sufficient staff time to processing records requests, consistent with the act's requirement that fulfilling requests should not be an "excessive interference" with the agency's "other essential functions." RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. The agency should recognize that fulfilling public records requests is one of the agency's duties, along with its others.

     The act also requires agencies to adopt and enforce rules to provide for the "most timely possible action on requests." RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. This principle should guide agencies when processing requests. It should be noted that this provision requires the most timely "possible" action on requests. This recognizes that an agency is not always capable of fulfilling a request as quickly as the requestor would like.

     (3) Communicate with requestor. Communication is usually the key to a smooth public records process for both requestors and agencies. Clear requests for a small number of records usually do not require predelivery communication with the requestor. However, when an agency receives a large or unclear request, the agency should communicate with the requestor to clarify the request. If the request is modified orally, the public records officer or designee should memorialize the communication in writing.

     For large requests, the agency may ask the requestor to prioritize the request so that he or she receives the most important records first. If feasible, the agency should provide periodic updates to the requestor of the progress of the request. Similarly, the requestor should periodically communicate with the agency and promptly answer any clarification questions. Sometimes a requestor finds the records he or she is seeking at the beginning of a request. If so, the requestor should communicate with the agency that the requested records have been provided and that he or she is canceling the remainder of the request. If the requestor's cancellation communication is not in writing, the agency should confirm it in writing.

     (4) Failure to provide initial response within five business days. Within five business days of receiving a request, an agency must provide an initial response to requestor. The initial response must do one of four things:

     (a) Provide the record;

     (b) Acknowledge that the agency has received the request and provide a reasonable estimate of the time it will require to fully respond;

     (c) Seek a clarification of the request; or

     (d) Deny the request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. An agency's failure to provide an initial response is arguably a violation of the act.2

     (5) No duty to create records. An agency is not obligated to create a new record to satisfy a records request.4 However, sometimes it is easier for an agency to create a record responsive to the request rather than collecting and making available voluminous records that contain small pieces of the information sought by the requestor or find itself in a controversy about whether the request requires the creation of a new record. The decision to create a new record is left to the discretion of the agency. If the agency is considering creating a new record instead of disclosing the underlying records, it should obtain the consent of the requestor to ensure that the requestor is not actually seeking the underlying records. Making an electronic copy of an electronic record is not "creating" a new record; instead, it is similar to copying a paper copy. Similarly, eliminating a field of an electronic record can be a method of redaction; it is similar to redacting portions of a paper record using a black pen or white-out tape to make it available for inspection or copying.

     (6) Provide a reasonable estimate of the time to fully respond. Unless it is providing the records or claiming an exemption from disclosure within the five-business day period, an agency must provide a reasonable estimate of the time it will take to fully respond to the request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. Fully responding can mean processing the request (assembling records, redacting, preparing a withholding index, or notifying third parties named in the records who might seek an injunction against disclosure) or determining if the records are exempt from disclosure.

     An estimate must be "reasonable." The act provides a requestor a quick and simple method of challenging the reasonableness of an agency's estimate. RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2). See WAC 44-14-08004 (5)(b). The burden of proof is on the agency to prove its estimate is "reasonable." RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2).

     To provide a "reasonable" estimate, an agency should not use the same estimate for every request. An agency should roughly calculate the time it will take to respond to the request and send estimates of varying lengths, as appropriate. Some very large requests can legitimately take months or longer to fully provide. There is no standard amount of time for fulfilling a request so reasonable estimates should vary.

     Some agencies send form letters with thirty-day estimates to all requestors, no matter the size or complexity of the request. Form letter thirty-day estimates are rarely "reasonable" because an agency, which has the burden of proof, could find it difficult to prove that every single request it receives would take the same thirty-day period.

     In order to avoid unnecessary litigation over the reasonableness of an estimate, an agency should briefly explain to the requestor the basis for the estimate in the initial response. The explanation need not be elaborate but should allow the requestor to make a threshold determination of whether he or she should question that estimate further or has a basis to seek judicial review of the reasonableness of the estimate.

     An agency should either fulfill the request within the estimated time or, if warranted, communicate with the requestor about clarifications or the need for a revised estimate. An agency should not ignore a request and then continuously send extended estimates. Routine extensions with little or no action to fulfill the request would show that the previous estimates probably were not "reasonable." Extended estimates are appropriate when the circumstances have changed (such as an increase in other requests or discovering that the request will require extensive redaction). An estimate can be revised when appropriate, but unwarranted serial extensions have the effect of denying a requestor access to public records.

     (7) Seek clarification of a request or additional time. An agency may seek a clarification of an "unclear" request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. An agency can only seek a clarification when the request is objectively "unclear." Seeking a "clarification" of an objectively clear request delays access to public records.

     If the requestor fails to clarify an unclear request, the agency need not respond to it further. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. If the requestor does not respond to the agency's request for a clarification within thirty days of the agency's request, the agency may consider the request abandoned. If the agency considers the request abandoned, it should send a closing letter to the requestor.

     An agency may take additional time to provide the records or deny the request if it is awaiting a clarification. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. After providing the initial response and perhaps even beginning to assemble the records, an agency might discover it needs to clarify a request and is allowed to do so. A clarification could also affect a reasonable estimate.

     (8) Preserving requested records. If a requested record is scheduled shortly for destruction, and the agency receives a public records request for it, the record cannot be destroyed until the request is resolved. RCW 42.17.290/ Once a request has been closed, the agency can destroy the requested records in accordance with its retention schedule.

     (9) Searching for records. An agency must conduct an objectively reasonable search for responsive records. A requestor is not required to "ferret out" records on his or her own.6 A reasonable agency search usually begins with the public records officer for the agency or a records coordinator for a department of the agency deciding where the records are likely to be and who is likely to know where they are. One of the most important parts of an adequate search is to decide how wide the search will be. If the agency is small, it might be appropriate to initially ask all agency employees if they have responsive records. If the agency is larger, the agency may choose to initially ask only the staff of the department or departments of an agency most likely to have the records. For example, a request for records showing or discussing payments on a public works project might initially be directed to all staff in the finance and public works departments if those departments are deemed most likely to have the responsive documents, even though other departments may have copies or alternative versions of the same documents. Meanwhile, other departments that may have documents should be instructed to preserve their records in case they are later deemed to be necessary to respond to the request. The agency could notify the requestor which departments are being surveyed for the documents so the requestor may suggest other departments. It is better to be over inclusive rather than under inclusive when deciding which staff should be contacted, but not everyone in an agency needs to be asked if there is no reason to believe he or she has responsive records. An e-mail to staff selected as most likely to have responsive records is usually sufficient. Such an e-mail also allows an agency to document whom it asked for records.

     Agency policies should require staff to promptly respond to inquiries about responsive records from the public records officer.

     After records which are deemed responsive are located, an agency should take reasonable steps to narrow down the number of records to those which are responsive. In some cases, an agency might find it helpful to consult with the requestor on the scope of the documents to be assembled. An agency cannot "bury" a requestor with nonresponsive documents. However, an agency is allowed to provide arguably, but not clearly, responsive records to allow the requestor to select the ones he or she wants, particularly if the requestor is unable or unwilling to help narrow the scope of the documents.

     (10) Expiration of reasonable estimate. An agency should provide a record within the time provided in its reasonable estimate or communicate with the requestor that additional time is required to fulfill the request based on specified criteria. Unjustified failure to provide the record by the expiration of the estimate is a denial of access to the record.

     (11) Notice to affected third parties. Sometimes an agency decides it must release all or a part of a public record affecting a third party. The third party can file an action to obtain an injunction to prevent an agency from disclosing it, but the third party must prove the record or portion of it is exempt from disclosure.7 RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. Before sending a notice, an agency should have a reasonable belief that the record is arguably exempt. Notices to affected third parties when the records could not reasonably be considered exempt might have the effect of unreasonably delaying the requestor's access to a disclosable record.

     The act provides that before releasing a record an agency may, at its "option," provide notice to a person named in a public record or to whom the record specifically pertains (unless notice is required by law). RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. This would include all of those whose identity could reasonably be ascertained in the record and who might have a reason to seek to prevent the release of the record. An agency has wide discretion to decide whom to notify or not notify. First, an agency has the "option" to notify or not (unless notice is required by law). RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. Second, if it acted in good faith, an agency cannot be held liable for its failure to notify enough people under the act. RCW 42.17.258/42.56.060. However, if an agency had a contractual obligation to provide notice of a request but failed to do so, the agency might lose the immunity provided by RCW 42.17.258/42.56.060 because breaching the agreement probably is not a "good faith" attempt to comply with the act.

     The practice of many agencies is to give ten days' notice. Many agencies expressly indicate the deadline date to avoid any confusion. More notice might be appropriate in some cases, such as when numerous notices are required, but every additional day of notice is another day the potentially disclosable record is being withheld. When it provides a notice, the agency should include the notice period in the "reasonable estimate" it provides to a requestor.

     The notice informs the third party that release will occur on the stated date unless he or she obtains an order from a court enjoining release. The requestor has an interest in any legal action to prevent the disclosure of the records he or she requested. Therefore, the agency's notice should inform the third party that he or she should name the requestor as a party to any action to enjoin disclosure. If an injunctive action is filed, the third party or agency should name the requestor as a party or, at a minimum, must inform the requestor of the action to allow the requestor to intervene.

     (12) Later discovered records. If the agency becomes aware of the existence of records responsive to a request which were not provided, the agency should notify the requestor in writing and provide a brief explanation of the circumstances.

Notes: 1See also Op. Att'y Gen. 2 (1998).
2See Smith v. Okanogan County, 100 Wn. App. 7, 13, 994 P.2d 857 (2000) ("When an agency fails to respond as provided in RCW 42.17.320 (42.56.520), it violates the act and the individual requesting the public record is entitled to a statutory penalty.").
3While an agency can fulfill requests out of order, an agency is not allowed to ignore a large request while it is exclusively fulfilling smaller requests. The agency should strike a balance between fulfilling small and large requests.
4Smith, 100 Wn. App. at 14.
5An exception is some state-agency employee personnel records. RCW 42.17.295/42.56.110.
6Daines v. Spokane County, 111 Wn. App. 342, 349, 44 P.3d 909 (2002) ("an applicant need not exhaust his or her own ingenuity to 'ferret out' records through some combination of 'intuition and diligent research'”).
7The agency holding the record can also file a RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540 injunctive action to establish that it is not required to release the record or portion of it.

[Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, RCW 42.17.348. 06-04-079, § 44-14-04003, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06.]

AMENDATORY SECTION(Amending WSR 06-04-079, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06)

WAC 44-14-04004   Responsibilities of agency in providing records.   (1) General. An agency may simply provide the records or make them available within the five-business day period of the initial response. When it does so, an agency should also provide the requestor a written cover letter or e-mail briefly describing the records provided and informing the requestor that the request has been closed. This assists the agency in later proving that it provided the specified records on a certain date and told the requestor that the request had been closed. However, a cover letter or e-mail might not be practical in some circumstances, such as when the agency provides a small number of records or fulfills routine requests.

     An agency can, of course, provide the records sooner than five business days. Providing the "fullest assistance" to a requestor would mean providing a readily available record as soon as possible. For example, an agency might routinely prepare a premeeting packet of documents three days in advance of a city council meeting. The packet is readily available so the agency should provide it to a requestor on the same day of the request so he or she can have it for the council meeting.

     (2) Means of providing access. An agency must make nonexempt public records "available" for inspection or provide a copy. RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. An agency is only required to make records "available" and has no duty to explain the meaning of public records.1 Making records available is often called "access."

     Access to a public record can be provided by allowing inspection of the record, providing a copy, or posting the record on the agency's web site and assisting the requestor in finding it (if necessary). An agency must mail a copy of records if requested and if the requestor pays the actual cost of postage and the mailing container.2 The requestor can specify which method of access (or combination, such as inspection and then copying) he or she prefers. Different processes apply to requests for inspection versus copying (such as copy charges) so an agency should clarify with a requestor whether he or she seeks to inspect or copy a public record.

     An agency can provide access to a public record by posting it on its web site. If requested, an agency should provide reasonable assistance to a requestor in finding a public record posted on its web site. If the requestor does not have internet access, the agency may provide access to the record by allowing the requestor to view the record on a specific computer terminal at the agency open to the public. An agency is not required to do so. Despite the availability of the record on the agency's web site, a requestor can still make a public records request and inspect the record or obtain a copy of it by paying the appropriate per-page copying charge.

     (3) Providing records in installments. The act now provides that an agency must provide records "if applicable, on a partial or installment basis as records that are part of a larger set of requested records are assembled or made ready for inspection or disclosure." RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. The purpose of this provision is to allow requestors to obtain records in installments as they are assembled and to allow agencies to provide records in logical batches. The provision is also designed to allow an agency to only assemble the first installment and then see if the requestor claims or reviews it before assembling the next installments.

     Not all requests should be provided in installments. For example, a request for a small number of documents which are located at nearly the same time should be provided all at once. Installments are useful for large requests when, for example, an agency can provide the first box of records as an installment. An agency has wide discretion to determine when providing records in installments is "applicable." However, an agency cannot use installments to delay access by, for example, calling a small number of documents an "installment" and sending out separate notifications for each one. The agency must provide the "fullest assistance" and the "most timely possible action on requests" when processing requests. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100.

     (4) Failure to provide records. A "denial" of a request can occur when an agency:

     Does not have the record;

     Fails to respond to a request;

     Claims an exemption of the entire record or a portion of it; or

     Without justification, fails to provide the record after the reasonable estimate expires.

     (a) When the agency does not have the record. An agency is only required to provide access to public records it has or has used.3 An agency is not required to create a public record in response to a request.

     An agency must only provide access to public records in existence at the time of the request. An agency is not obligated to supplement responses. Therefore, if a public record is created or comes into the possession of the agency after the request is received by the agency, it is not responsive to the request and need not be provided. A requestor must make a new request to obtain subsequently created public records.

     Sometimes more than one agency holds the same record. When more than one agency holds a record, and a requestor makes a request to the first agency, the first agency cannot respond to the request by telling the requestor to obtain the record from the second agency. Instead, an agency must provide access to a record it holds regardless of its availability from another agency.4

     An agency is not required to provide access to records that were not requested. An agency does not "deny" a request when it does not provide records that are outside the scope of the request because they were never asked for.

     (b) Claiming exemptions.

     (i) Redactions. If a portion of a record is exempt from disclosure, but the remainder is not, an agency generally is required to redact (black out) the exempt portion and then provide the remainder. RCW 42.17.310(2)/42.56.210(((2))) (1). There are a few exceptions.5 Withholding an entire record where only a portion of it is exempt violates the act.6 Some records are almost entirely exempt but small portions remain nonexempt. For example, information revealing the identity of a crime victim is exempt from disclosure. RCW 42.17.310 (1)(e)/((42.56.210 (1)(e))) 42.56.240(2). If a requestor requested a police report in a case in which charges have been filed, the agency must redact the victim's identifying information but provide the rest of the report.

     Statistical information "not descriptive of any readily identifiable person or persons" is generally not subject to redaction or withholding. RCW 42.17.310(2)/42.56.210(((2))) (1). For example, if a statute exempted the identity of a person who had been assessed a particular kind of penalty, and an agency record showed the amount of penalties assessed against various persons, the agency must provide the record with the names of the persons redacted but with the penalty amounts remaining.

     Originals should not be redacted. For paper records, an agency should redact materials by first copying the record and then either using a black marker on the copy or covering the exempt portions with copying tape, and then making a copy. It is often a good practice to keep the initial copies which were redacted in case there is a need to make additional copies for disclosure or to show what was redacted. For electronic records such as data bases, an agency can sometimes redact a field of exempt information by excluding it from the set of fields to be copied. However, in some instances electronic redaction might not be feasible and a paper copy of the record with traditional redaction might be the only way to provide the redacted record. If a record is redacted electronically, by deleting a field of data or in any other way, the agency must identify the redaction and state the basis for the claimed exemption as required by RCW 42.56.210(3). See (b)(ii) of this subsection.

     (ii) Brief explanation of withholding. When an agency claims an exemption for an entire record or portion of one, it must inform the requestor of the statutory exemption and provide a brief explanation of how the exemption applies to the record or portion withheld. RCW 42.17.310(4)/42.56.210(((4))) (3). The brief explanation should cite the statute the agency claims grants an exemption from disclosure. The brief explanation should provide enough information for a requestor to make a threshold determination of whether the claimed exemption is proper. Nonspecific claims of exemption such as "proprietary" or "privacy" are insufficient.

     One way to properly provide a brief explanation of the withheld record or redaction is for the agency to provide a withholding index. It identifies the type of record, its date and number of pages, and the author or recipient of the record (unless their identity is exempt).7 The withholding index need not be elaborate but should allow a requestor to make a threshold determination of whether the agency has properly invoked the exemption.

     (5) Notifying requestor that records are available. If the requestor sought to inspect the records, the agency should notify him or her that the entire request or an installment is available for inspection and ask the requestor to contact the agency to arrange for a mutually agreeable time for inspection.8 The notification should recite that if the requestor fails to inspect or copy the records or make other arrangements within thirty days of the date of the notification that the agency will close the request and refile the records. An agency might consider on a case-by-case basis sending the notification by certified mail to document that the requestor received it.

     If the requestor sought copies, the agency should notify him or her of the projected costs and whether a copying deposit is required before the copies will be made. The notification can be oral to provide the most timely possible response.

     (6) Documenting compliance. An agency should have a process to identify which records were provided to a requestor and the date of production. In some cases, an agency may wish to number-stamp or number-label paper records provided to a requestor to document which records were provided. The agency could also keep a copy of the numbered records so either the agency or requestor can later determine which records were or were not provided. However, the agency should balance the benefits of stamping or labeling the documents and making extra copies against the costs and burdens of doing so.

     If memorializing which specific documents were offered for inspection is impractical, an agency might consider documenting which records were provided for inspection by making an index or list of the files or records made available for inspection.

Notes: 1Bonamy v. City of Seattle, 92 Wn. App. 403, 409, 960 P.2d 447 (1998), review denied, 137 Wn.2d 1012, 978 P.2d 1099 (1999).
2Am. Civil Liberties Union v. Blaine Sch. Dist. No. 503, 86 Wn. App. 688, 695, 937 P.2d 1176 (1997).
3Sperr v. City of Spokane, 123 Wn. App. 132, 136-37, 96 P.3d 1012 (2004).
4Hearst Corp. v. Hoppe, 90 Wn.2d 123, 132, 580 P.2d 246 (1978).
5The two main exceptions to the redaction requirement are state "tax information" (RCW 82.32.330 (1)(c)) and law enforcement case files in active cases (Newman v. King County, 133 Wn.2d 565, 574, 947 P.2d 712 (1997). Neither of these two kinds of records must be redacted but rather may be withheld in their entirety.
6Seattle Fire Fighters Union Local No. 27 v. Hollister, 48 Wn. App. 129, 132, 737 P.2d 1302 (1987).
7Progressive Animal Welfare Soc'y. v. Univ. of Wash., 125 Wn.2d 243, 271, n.18, 884 P.2d 592 (1994) ("PAWS II").
8For smaller requests, the agency might simply provide them with the initial response or earlier so no notification is necessary.

[Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, RCW 42.17.348. 06-04-079, § 44-14-04004, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06.]

AMENDATORY SECTION(Amending WSR 06-04-079, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06)

WAC 44-14-050   ((Reserved.)) Processing of public records requests -- Electronic records.   (1) Requesting electronic records. The process for requesting electronic public records is the same as for requesting paper public records.

     (2) Providing electronic records. When a requestor requests records in an electronic format, the public records officer will provide the nonexempt records or portions of such records that are reasonably locatable in an electronic format that is used by the agency and is generally commercially available, or in a format that is reasonably translatable from the format in which the agency keeps the record. Costs for providing electronic records are governed by WAC 44-14-07003.

     (3) Customized access to data bases. With the consent of the requestor, the agency may provide customized access under RCW 43.105.280 if the record is not reasonably locatable or not reasonably translatable into the format requested. The (agency) may charge a fee consistent with RCW 43.105.280 for such customized access.

[Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, RCW 42.17.348. 06-04-079, § 44-14-050, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06.]

Comments to WAC 44-14-050
WAC 44-14-05001   Access to electronic records.   The Public Records Act does not distinguish between paper and electronic records. Instead, the act explicitly includes electronic records within its coverage. The definition of "public record" includes a "writing," which in turn includes "existing data compilations from which information may be obtained or translated." RCW 42.17.020(48) (incorporated by reference into the act by RCW 42.56.010). Many agency records are now in an electronic format. Many of these electronic formats such as Windows¦ products are generally available and are designed to operate with other computers to quickly and efficiently locate and transfer information. Providing electronic records can be cheaper and easier for an agency than paper records. Furthermore, RCW 43.105.250 provides: "It is the intent of the legislature to encourage state and local governments to develop, store, and manage their public records and information in electronic formats to meet their missions and objectives. Further, it is the intent of the legislature for state and local governments to set priorities for making public records widely available electronically to the public." In general, an agency should provide electronic records in an electronic format if requested in that format. Technical feasibility is the touchstone for providing electronic records. An agency should provide reasonably locatable electronic public records in either their original generally commercially available format (such as an Acrobat PDF¦ file) or, if the records are not in a generally commercially available format, the agency should provide them in a reasonably translatable electronic format if possible. In the rare cases when the requested electronic records are not reasonably locatable, or are not in a generally commercially available format or are not reasonably translatable into one, the agency might consider customized access. See WAC 44-14-05004. An agency may recover its actual costs for providing electronic records, which in many cases is de minimis. See WAC 44-14-050(3). What is technically feasible in one situation may not be in another. Not all agencies, especially smaller units of local government, have the electronic resources of larger agencies and some of the generalizations in these model rules may not apply every time. If an agency initially believes it cannot provide electronic records in an electronic format, it should confer with the requestor and the two parties should attempt to cooperatively resolve any technical difficulties. See WAC 44-14-05003. It is usually a purely technical question whether an agency can provide electronic records in a particular format in a specific case.


WAC 44-14-05002   "Reasonably locatable" and "reasonably translatable" electronic records.   (1) "Reasonably locatable" electronic records. The act obligates an agency to provide nonexempt "identifiable...records." RCW 42.56.080. An "identifiable record" is essentially one that agency staff can "reasonably locate." WAC 44-14-04002(2). Therefore, a general summary of the "identifiable record" standard as it relates to electronically locating public records is that the act requires an agency to provide a nonexempt "reasonably locatable" record. This does not mean that an agency can decide if a request is "reasonable" and only fulfill those requests. Rather, "reasonably locatable" is a concept, grounded in the act, for analyzing electronic records issues.

     In general, a "reasonably locatable" electronic record is one which can be located with typical search features and organizing methods contained in the agency's current software. For example, a retained e-mail containing the term "XYZ" is usually reasonably locatable by using the e-mail program search feature. However, an e-mail search feature has limitations, such as not searching attachments, but is a good starting point for the search. Information might be "reasonably locatable" by methods other than a search feature. For example, a request for a copy of all retained e-mails sent by a specific agency employee for a particular date is "reasonably locatable" because it can be found utilizing a common organizing feature of the agency's e-mail program, a chronological "sent" folder. Another indicator of what is "reasonably locatable" is whether the agency keeps the information in a particular way for its business purposes. For example, an agency might keep a data base of permit holders including the name of the business. The agency does not separate the businesses by whether they are publicly traded corporations or not because it has no reason to do so. A request for the names of the businesses which are publicly traded is not "reasonably locatable" because the agency has no business purpose for keeping the information that way. In such a case, the agency should provide the names of the businesses (assuming they are not exempt from disclosure) and the requestor can analyze the data base to determine which businesses are publicly traded corporations.

     (2) "Reasonably translatable" electronic records. The act requires an agency to provide a "copy" of nonexempt records (subject to certain copying charges). RCW 42.56.070(1) and 42.56.080. To provide a photocopy of a paper record, an agency must take some reasonable steps to mechanically translate the agency's original document into a useable copy for the requestor such as copying it in a copying machine. Similarly, an agency must take some reasonable steps to prepare an electronic copy of an electronic record or a paper record. Providing an electronic copy is analogous to providing a paper record: An agency must take reasonable steps to translate the agency's original into a useable copy for the requestor.

     The "reasonably translatable" concept typically operates in three kinds of situations:

     (a) An agency has only a paper record;

     (b) An agency has an electronic record in a generally commercially available format (such as a Windows¦ product); or

     (c) An agency has an electronic record in an electronic format but the requestor seeks a copy in a different electronic format.

     The following examples assume no redactions are necessary.

     (i) Agency has paper-only records. When an agency only has a paper copy of a record, an example of a "reasonably translatable" copy would be scanning the record into an Adobe Acrobat PDF¦ file and providing it to the requestor. The agency could recover its actual cost for scanning. See WAC 44-14-07003. Providing a PDF copy of the record is analogous to making a paper copy. However, if the agency lacked a scanner (such as a small unit of local government), the record would not be "reasonably translatable" with the agency's own resources. In such a case, the agency could provide a paper copy to the requestor.

     (ii) Agency has electronic records in a generally commercially available format. When an agency has an electronic record in a generally commercially available format, such as an Excel¦ spreadsheet, and the requestor requests an electronic copy in that format, no translation into another format is necessary; the agency should provide the spreadsheet electronically. Another example is where an agency has an electronic record in a generally commercially available format (such as Word¦) and the requestor requests an electronic copy in Word¦. An agency cannot instead provide a WordPerfect¦ copy because there is no need to translate the electronic record into a different format. In the paper-record context, this would be analogous to the agency intentionally making an unreadable photocopy when it could make a legible one. Similarly, the WordPerfect¦ "translation" by the agency is an attempt to hinder access to the record. In this example, the agency should provide the document in Word¦ format. Electronic records in generally commercially available formats such as Word¦ could be easily altered by the requestor. Requestors should note that altering public records and then intentionally passing them off as exact copies of public records might violate various criminal and civil laws.

     (iii) Agency has electronic records in an electronic format other than the format requested. When an agency has an electronic record in an electronic format (such as a Word¦ document) but the requestor seeks a copy in another format (such as WordPerfect¦), the question is whether the agency's document is "reasonably translatable" into the requested format. If the format of the agency document allows it to "save as" another format without changing the substantive accuracy of the document, this would be "reasonably translatable." The agency's record might not translate perfectly, but it was the requestor who requested the record in a format other than the one used by the agency. Another example is where an agency has a data base in a unique format that is not generally commercially available. A requestor requests an electronic copy. The agency can convert the data in its unique system into a near-universal format such as a comma-delimited or tab-delimited format. The requestor can then convert the comma-delimited or tab-delimited data into a data base program (such as Access¦) and use it. The data in this example is "reasonably translatable" into a comma-delimited or tab-delimited format so the agency should do so. A final example is where an agency has an electronic record in a generally commercially available format (such as Word¦) but the requestor requests a copy in an obscure word processing format. The agency offers to provide the record in Word¦ format but the requestor refuses. The agency can easily convert the Word¦ document into a standard text file which, in turn, can be converted into most programs. The Word¦ document is "reasonably translatable" into a text file so the agency should do so. It is up to the requestor to convert the text file into his or her preferred format, but the agency has provided access to the electronic record in the most technically feasible way and not attempted to hinder the requestor's access to it.

     (3) Agency should keep an electronic copy of the electronic records it provides. An electronic record is usually more susceptible to manipulation and alteration than a paper record. Therefore, an agency should keep, when feasible, an electronic copy of the electronic records it provides to a requestor to show the exact records it provided. Additionally, an electronic copy might also be helpful when responding to subsequent electronic records requests for the same records.


WAC 44-14-05003   Parties should confer on technical issues.   Technical feasibility can vary from request to request. When a request for electronic records involves technical issues, the best approach is for both parties to confer and cooperatively resolve them. Often a telephone conference will be sufficient. This approach is consistent with the requirement that agencies provide the "fullest assistance" to a requestor. RCW 42.56.100 and WAC 44-14-04003(2). Furthermore, if a requestor files an enforcement action under the act to obtain the records, the burden of proof is on the agency to justify its refusal to provide the records. RCW 42.56.550(1). If the requestor articulates a reasonable technical alternative to the agency's refusal to provide the records electronically or in the requested format, and the agency never offered to confer with the requestor, the agency will have difficulty proving that its refusal was justified.


WAC 44-14-05004   Customized access.   When locating the requested records or translating them into the requested format cannot be done without specialized programming, RCW 43.105.280 allows agencies to charge some fees for "customized access." The statute provides: "Agencies should not offer customized electronic access services as the primary way of responding to requests or as a primary source of revenue." Most public records requests for electronic records can be fulfilled based on the "reasonably locatable" and "reasonably translatable" standards. Resorting to customized access should not be the norm. An example of where "customized access" would be appropriate is if a state agency's old computer system stored data in a manner in which it was impossible to extract the data into comma-delimited or tab-delimited formats, but rather required a programmer to spend more than a nominal amount of time to write computer code specifically to extract it. Before resorting to customized access, the agency should confer with the requestor to determine if a technical solution exists not requiring the specialized programming.


WAC 44-14-05005   Relationship of Public Records Act to court rules on discovery of "electronically stored information."   The December 2006 amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide guidance to parties in litigation on their respective obligations to provide access to, or produce, "electronically stored information." See Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26 and 34. The obligations of state and local agencies under those federal rules (and under any state-imposed rules or procedures that adopt the federal rules) to search for and provide electronic records may be different, and in some instances more demanding, than those required under the Public Records Act. The federal discovery rules and the Public Records Act are two separate laws imposing different standards. However, sometimes requestors make public records requests to obtain evidence that later may be used in non-Public Records Act litigation against the agency providing the records. Therefore, it may be prudent for agencies to consult with their attorneys regarding best practices of retaining copies of the records provided under the act so there can be no question later of what was and what was not produced in response to the request in the event that electronic records, or records derived from them, become issues in court.


AMENDATORY SECTION(Amending WSR 06-04-079, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06)

WAC 44-14-070   Costs of providing copies of public records.   (1) Costs for paper copies. There is no fee for inspecting public records. A requestor may obtain standard black and white photocopies for (amount) cents per page and color copies for (amount) cents per page.

     (If agency decides to charge more than fifteen cents per page, use the following language:) The (name of agency) charges (amount) per page for a standard black and white photocopy of a record selected by a requestor. A statement of the factors and the manner used to determine this charge is available from the public records officer.

     Before beginning to make the copies, the public records officer or designee may require a deposit of up to ten percent of the estimated costs of copying all the records selected by the requestor. The public records officer or designee may also require the payment of the remainder of the copying costs before providing all the records, or the payment of the costs of copying an installment before providing that installment. The (name of agency) will not charge sales tax when it makes copies of public records.

     (2) Costs for electronic records. The cost of electronic copies of records shall be (amount) for information on a ((floppy disk and (amount) for information on a)) CD-ROM. (If the agency has scanning equipment at its offices: The cost of scanning existing (agency) paper or other nonelectronic records is (amount) per page.) There will be no charge for e-mailing electronic records to a requestor, unless another cost applies such as a scanning fee.

     (3) Costs of mailing. The (name of agency) may also charge actual costs of mailing, including the cost of the shipping container.

     (4) Payment. Payment may be made by cash, check, or money order to the (name of agency).

[Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, RCW 42.17.348. 06-04-079, § 44-14-070, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06.]

AMENDATORY SECTION(Amending WSR 06-04-079, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06)

WAC 44-14-07003   Charges for electronic records.   ((Reserved.)) Providing copies of electronic records usually costs the agency and requestor less than making paper copies. Agencies are strongly encouraged to provide copies of electronic records in an electronic format. See RCW 43.105.250 (encouraging state and local agencies to make "public records widely available electronically to the public."). As with charges for paper copies, "actual cost" is the primary factor for charging for electronic records. In many cases, the "actual cost" of providing an existing electronic record is de minimis. For example, a requestor requests an agency to e-mail an existing Excel¦ spreadsheet. The agency should not charge for the de minimis cost of electronically copying and e-mailing the existing spreadsheet. The agency cannot attempt to charge a per-page amount for a paper copy when it has an electronic copy that can be easily provided at nearly no cost. However, if the agency has a paper-only copy of a record and the requestor requests an Adobe Acrobat PDF¦ copy, the agency incurs an actual cost in scanning the record (if the agency has a scanner at its offices). Therefore, an agency can establish a scanning fee for records it scans. Agencies are encouraged to compare their scanning and other copying charges to the rates of outside vendors. See WAC 44-14-07001.

[Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, RCW 42.17.348. 06-04-079, § 44-14-07003, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06.]

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