WA Supreme Court: Non-Agencies Under ICA May Still Be Agencies for PRA Purposes
What is WestNET? I’m glad you asked. Its the West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team. Undoubtedly I have had friends on this. Here, a person sued WestNET looking for documents. The trial court dismissed the suit, holding that the Plaintiff had to request the documents from the individual agencies that were part of WestNET, and that WestNET wasn’t an entity that could be sued.
Here, the Agreement was an interlocal agreement. Lots of departments have them. You see it a lot in fire departments, like Eastside Fire and Rescue, which is really a consortium of various fire districts. Here, their agreement stated “[t]he parties do not intend to create through, this Agreement [sic], a separate legal entity subject to suit."
Well Worthington’s home was raided, and he wanted to know why. He put forth the request to WestNet, and WestNET didn’t respond. Kitsap County did respond with some documents, but never explained that WestNET wasn’t an entity as far as they were concerned. Worthington brought suit, and the Kitsap County prosecutor responded and asked the court to dismiss the case (that part was provided for in their agreement). The court did just that.
So this all turns on who is a state agency under the public records act. The statute is very liberal in construction, meaning you essentially try to fit it into one of the definitions. It includes the term “or other local public agency,” which is a catch all. The question under the PRA is whether it is the functional equivalent of a governmental entity. This requires some fact finding on what the agency does, which may or may not be contained solely in the agreement.
For example, it is conceivable that despite its own terms, WestNET operates independently, maintains its own records, and effectively exists as a separate government agency such that it should be subject to the broad scope of the PRA and its provisions. The trial court could have considered other relevant factors that were not apparent from the terms in the Agreement: Does WestNET maintain a separate physical office? Where are the task force records kept? Does WestNET have a designated custodian of the records? If WestNET is not subject to the PRA, how would interested individuals request documents and to what extent would an individual have to engage in a document search among the 10 different municipalities and agencies? Essentially, the inquiry should focus on whether an interested individual could still adequately exercise his or her rights under the PRA if record requests and suits cannot be brought against W estNET directly. Without discovery, none of these questions can be answered.
So now we have a conflict of sorts between the interlocal statute, which says the agencies can say the interlocal is not an agency, and the PRA, which uses a different test based on functionality. The PRA says its provisions trump regarding PRA obligations. Thus, if you’re not an agency for one purpose, if it conflicts with the PRA, you can still be an agency for PRA purposes. The ICA also includes a provision that you can’t use the ICA non-agency status to skirt performance of obligations. Forcing Worthington to go to ten different agencies to collect WestNET documents may be too cumbersome and frustrate the purposes of the PRA.
So back to the trial court we go for some discovery as to the true nature of WestNET’s operations and whether it is a governmental entity for purposes of the PRA.
Issaquah Legal Services Attorneys are skilled in using the Public Records Act to move you case forward and can help you in parsing through the complexities of the PRA if you need to respond to a request.