Public Records, Open Meetings: Your Right of Access
The Washington Coalition for Open Government has received many requests for help and information in recent months. Here are some of the Frequently Asked Questions and the answers.
Have a question related to public records and open meetings? Submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org and you will receive an answer via email.
Q. Why are Washington's Public Disclosure and Open Meetings acts necessary?
A. Government business is the business of the people. These acts ensure that citizens have the right to see public documents and go to public meetings.
Q. If statutory exemptions exist, must records custodians or chairmen of public councils, commissions, committees and boards withhold a document or close a meeting to the public?
A. No. Exemptions are not mandatory. They are to be narrowly construed to favor citizen access. There is no penalty for releasing public documents or opening public meetings that an exemption could have barred. There are, however, statutes outside the Public Disclosure Act that expressly prohibit disclosure of certain records. These usually refer to a very specific type of record. Court records, for example, are controlled by rules of the court and the judges seated on the courts.
Q. May a local government enact an ordinance that includes requirements more or less restrictive than those in state laws provide?
A. Local ordinances that conflict with state public disclosure and open meetings laws are void.
Q. What is a "public record"? What constitutes a "meeting" of a public agency?
A. A record is defined in broad terms of documents and information in government's possession. The concept of a public record covers "all records, document, tape, or other information stored or preserved in any medium" -- including on a computer -- "of or belonging to" a government agency. A government agency is considered to be "meeting" when a majority of its members are talking about or taking action upon any matter within the scope of the governmental body's policy-making duties. That, too, is a broad definition, consistent with the law's emphasis on openness. Many city councils, for example, have committees whose membership constitutes fewer that a majority of the council. These meetings are open public meetings, however, even though the "decisions" or "recommendations" from the committee to the full council are not final. In Washington, the deliberative process of government, at all levels, is public.
Q. Does a person have a right to speak at a meeting of a government agency?
A. No. School boards, city councils, etc., routinely invite comments and discussion from the general public, but they can say "No" to requests to talk and can place the time limits on comments.
Q. Can a person get public information by phone or by fax?
A. Law does not provide for such access, but governmental agencies often provide it to be helpful.
Q. When can a person see the minutes of a public meeting?
A. As soon as the minutes are prepared. A public agency cannot deny access to the minutes because they have not been received or approved by agency members.
Q. What does it cost to get a copy of a public record?
A. A public agency may charge "a reasonable fee" for providing a copy of a record. Costs vary. Sometimes there is no charge at all. Two rules of thumb: (1) If the charge is high enough to discourage you from getting the record, the charge probably is not "reasonable." (2) State law provides charges of 15 cents a page for copies. Visit the In-State Survey Responses page for more information.
Q. How can a person sue a public agency for violation of these laws?
A. Some points to bear in mind:
- 1. The goal should be to assure access, not to file and win a lawsuit. Talk with the people involved about the presumption of openness in Washington laws. Try to work things out short of litigation.
- 2. Talk with the attorney for the public agency to see if counsel thinks the law has been followed.
- 3. Document your efforts to get a record or attend a meeting where access is denied.
- 4. Seek the advice of an attorney not associated with the public agency involved. Often an attorney can briefly advise you at little or no charge.
- 5. If you file suit and are successful, the laws provide that you may recover reasonable attorney's fees and in some cases monetary penalties.