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July 31, 1972
Honorable A. L. Rasmussen
State Senator, 29th District
5415 A Street
Tacoma, Washington 98408
Cite as: AGLO 1972 No. 58 (not official)
This is written in response to your recent letter requesting our opinion with regard to the right of members of the public to inspect certain records relating to real property valuation which are maintained in a county assessor's office.
Under the provisions of chapter 84.40 RCW, the assessor of each county is charged with responsibility for determining the value for tax purposes of all taxable property (both real and personal) situated within his county. The end product of his work is the county's annual tax rolls, and under RCW 84.56.010 the assessor is required to deliver these documents to the county treasurer for collection purposes "On the first Monday in January next succeeding the date of levy of taxes . . ." This statute further expressly provides that these tax rolls ". . . shall be preserved as a public record in the office of the county treasurer. . . ."
However, your question as we understand it pertains not to these tax rolls in the hands of the treasurer but to certain earlier compiled records of valuation upon which the tax rolls are based ‑ records which are retained by the assessor. We have found no similar "public records" statute in the case of any such documents as these, and thus the question presented must, instead, be resolved on the basis of the common-law rules which pertain in this state in the absence of a statute to the contrary.1/
[[Orig. Op. Page 2]]
In so far as public records are concerned, these rules are summarized in AGO 57-58 No. 84 [[to Alfred T. Neale, Pollution Control Commission, June 19, 1957]], copy enclosed. The traditional test of what constitutes a "public record" within the meaning of these rules is whether or not the particular document is one which the public agency having custody is required by law to maintain. See, e.g., State ex rel. Cook v. Reed, 36 Wash. 638, 79 Pac. 306 (1905). Records which meet this test must be maintained on an "open for inspection" basis in the absence of a specific statute to the contrary ‑ subject only to a requirement that the persons asking to see them do so at a reasonable time and can demonstrate legitimate interest in the records to be inspected. However, the mere fact that certain records are maintained by a public agency does not make them public records, per se. As stated in this prior opinion, supra,
"All records maintained by the various departments of government are not, however, public records. In denying that the appellant had a right of inspection of certain memoranda and records maintained by a county treasurer at public expense but not by direction of statute, our court stated as follows:
"'They were not public records open to inspection by the public, as a matter or right, unless they were such as the law required to be kept.' State ex rel. Cook v. Reed, 36 Wash. 638, 640.
"In State ex rel. Price v. Peterson, 198 Wash. 490, 497, the court, in discussing the right of inspection of records maintained by an administrator who was by statute required to keep records and reports only as the county commissioners directed, said:
"'We do not think it follows that, because one is a public officer, all records and reports of such officer are public records, which the public is entitled to inspect.'
"Thus, where the legislature has not required that a public agency or department maintain certain records, and thereby denominated them public records, the availability for examination [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] of such records is within the discretion of the administrative head of the particular department or agency. 51 O.A.G. 176 [[to B. J. McLean, State Representative on November 27, 1971]]." (Emphasis supplied.)
Accordingly, it will be seen that the ultimate answer to your question will depend upon the answers to the following two subsidiary questions:
(1) Is the particular record of an assessor to which public access is sought one which the assessor is required by law to maintain?
(2) If it is, is there, nevertheless, some statute prohibiting public access to that particular record?
While you have not specifically identified in your letter the exact records which you have in mind, we assume that, basically, your reference is to the assessment lists which are required to be compiled by the assessor under the following provisions of RCW 84.40.040:
"The assessor shall begin the preliminary work for each assessment not later than the first day of December of each year in all counties in the state. He shall also complete the duties of listing and placing valuations on all property by May 31st of each year, and in the following manner, to wit:
"He shall actually determine as nearly as practicable the true and fair value of each tract or lot of land listed for taxation and of each improvement located thereon and shall enter fifty percent of the value of such land and of the total value of such improvements, together with the total of such fifty percent valuations, opposite each description of property on his assessment list and tax roll."
See, also, RCW 84.40.160 which provides that:
"The assessor shall list all real property according to the largest legal subdivision as near as practicable. The assessor shall make out in the plat and description book in numerical order a complete list of all [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] lands or lots subject to taxation, showing the names and owners, if to him known and if unknown, so stated; the number of acres and lots or parts of lots included in each description of property and the value per acre or lot: . . ."
We think it clear that this lists of real property valuations must be said to constitute "public records" under the foregoing test ‑ as records which the assessor is required by law to maintain. Moreover, we have found no statutes purporting to immunize these lists from public inspection. Therefore, it follows that these particular documents are to be regarded as being open for such inspection in the manner and to the extent indicated in AGO 57-58 No. 84, supra.
Similarly, if any other records of real property maintained by an assessor can be shown to be "public records" under this same analysis the same result would follow as to them as well. However, any such records (such as preliminary work papers, "backup" data or the like) which are maintained by an assessor as a matter of convenience rather than because of any legal requirement would be outside the purview of these "public records" rules and thus the question of whether public inspection is to be allowed of these records must be said to rest in the sound discretion of each assessor, absent any statutory requirements to the contrary.
We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.
Very truly yours,
FOR THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
Philip H. Austin
Deputy Attorney General
*** FOOTNOTES ***
1/See, RCW 4.04.010, which provides that:
"The common law, so far as it is not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States, or of the state of Washington nor incompatible with the institutions and condition of society in this state, shall be the rule of decision in all of the courts of this state."