Your Right to Know: Access to Governmental Information
May 31, 2011
There is a lot of talk about government “transparency” and the rights of the people to know what their government is doing. But what does this mean beyond what you see on the news or flipping the remote to the government channels?
In Washington, there is a powerful but often ignored law known as the Public Records Act (PRA). It is similar to the Freedom of Information Act which applies to federal agencies. The PRA applies to all governmental agencies within the state and requires that every agency (state, county or city), follow specific rules when a person requests information about government actions. Every agency must designate a Public Records Officer who is the point of contact for requests and oversees agency compliance with the law.
A public record is any paper or electronic item of any kind that the agency might have. The agency must disclose the information requested, except for certain very specific exceptions. These exceptions include information that would invade an individual’s privacy, some law enforcement investigative information and research data, among others. Other laws restrict access to certain other information such as a person’s medical records.
To request public records, a member of the public need only make a request to the agency for the information. Instructions for making a request are usually on the agency’s Web site. No explanation for the need of the information is required. The agency has five business days to produce the record, provide an internet link to the information, deny the request (with an explanation of which exemption applies), or provide a reasonable estimate of the additional time it will need to respond. The agency may provide copies, for which they can charge, or make the information available for copying.
You can find additional information about the Public Records Act by checking out RCW 42.56 on the Washington state Web site: www.access.wa.gov.