INITIATIVE NO. 276 ‑- RECORDS ‑- PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICTS
It is not a violation of Initiative No. 276 for a public agency to allow its public records to be examined by others for the purpose of compiling lists of information contained in those records; however, the agency itself is prohibited by the initiative from making and selling or giving away those lists.
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December 12, 1973
Honorable George Sellar
State Senator, 12th District
1324 Terrace Drive
East Wenatchee, Washington 98801 Cite as: AGLO 1973 No. 113
This is written in response to your recent request for our opinion as to whether a certain long-standing practice of the Chelan County Public Utility District is in violation of Initiative No. 276. This practice, as we now understand it from the materials you have provided to us in supplementation of your original request, is that of allowing the representatives of a local credit bureau to examine, periodically, the PUD's consumer utility service contract applications and cut out orders so that those credit bureau representatives may, themselves, compile lists of relevant information from these documents.
We do not believe that this practice is in violation of Initiative No. 276.
Initiative No. 276, as approved by the voters at the November 7, 1972, general election, is a comprehensive enactment consisting of four major substantive chapters. Your question pertains, particularly, to Chapter IV, relating to public records, which is now codified as RCW 42.17.250-42.17.340. The term "public records" is defined in RCW 42.17.020 (24) to mean
". . . any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned, used or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics."
[[Orig. Op. Page 2]]
For the most part, this chapter of the initiative is aimed at enhancing public access to such records of public agencies rather than limiting or restricting it. There are, however, a number of specific exemptions from the initiative's requirements with respect to such access ‑ primarily based upon potential impairments of a legally recognized right of personal privacy on the part of the persons about whom information is contained in certain records. See, RCW 42.17.260 (1) and RCW 41.17.310.
In addition, after setting forth the essential substantive requirements of this chapter with respect to access, the first of these two statutes, RCW 42.17.260, provides in subsection (5) that:
"This chapter shall not be construed as giving authority to any agency to give, sell or provide access to lists of individuals requested for commercial purposes, and agencies shall not do so unless specifically authorized or directed by law."
Your question, in most basic terms, is whether the existing and long-standing practice of the Chelan County Public Utility District which you have described and exemplified by your enclosures is now in violation of this prohibition. In our opinion, it is not.
From the information which you have provided to us it does not appear that the public utility district is giving, selling or providing access to any "lists of individuals," as such. Instead, it is merely making its "public records" available to members of the public (who happen also to be employees of a credit bureau) so that they can compile their own lists from information contained therein. The access thus being given is to the original records and not to any lists prepared from those records by the custodial public agency or its employees. In this regard we read RCW 42.17.260 (5), supra, as precluding access to "lists" which are prepared by the agency having custody of the records, through its own employees, from raw data contained in the various public records which are in its custody. But this, as you have described it, is not what is happening in connection with the practice you have asked us to consider in this opinion.
Most certainly, the representatives of a credit bureau like any other members of the public are entitled, under the initiative, to examine the basic records themselves (assuming that no exemption from such public inspection applies), and based upon their examination of those records they may derive such information as they are seeking by compiling their own "lists" ‑ as contrasted [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] with a "list" which has been prepared by the custodial public agency.
We trust that the foregoing will be of some assistance to you.
Very truly yours,
PHILIP H. AUSTIN
Deputy Attorney General