OLYMPIA – Looking to promote public accessibility and flexibility in emergencies, the Legislature this year passed an update to the state’s open public meetings act in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The open public meetings act is a series of state laws that govern how cities, counties and other public agencies are supposed to openly conduct their meetings for public engagement. The act was originally passed in 1971 and has seen a few updates over the past 50 years.
The revisions, signed into law last month, come two years after the pandemic sent councils, commissions and the communities they serve away from physical meeting places and into boxes on computer screens or voices over the phone.
Candice Bock, government relations director for the Association of Washington Cities, said the pandemic highlighted the need to bring the act into the 21st Century.
“The emergency provisions hadn’t been revised since 1983 and so there was nothing in there that anticipated the technology that we have today to conduct a meeting,” Bock said in an interview.
Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the bill provides better expectations for what’s required in terms of open public meetings.
“I just hope governing bodies will take this seriously and see it as an opportunity to give the public more opportunities to participate in the deliberative process,” Fancher said.
The update largely addresses the accessibility of government meetings, covering topics like how the public should be notified of a meeting and how the public can participate.
While the law has been updated to “encourage” government bodies to provide electronic access to meetings through the internet or over the phone, they are now explicitly allowed to conduct remote meetings or in-person meetings with limited public attendance – if there is a declared emergency.
Bock said the act previously allowed for some flexibility in conducting meetings in emergency situations, but still required a physical meeting location – which can prove challenging during the pandemic or any other emergency like a severe weather event. A proclamation from the governor at the onset of the pandemic explicitly required meetings to go completely remote before being revised to allow some in-person meetings as public health restrictions loosened.
Mellani McAleenan, director of government relations for the Washington State Association of Counties, said county councils and commissioners saw increased engagement from the public when meetings went remote. Having that ability during an emergency explicitly spelled out in law, rather than granted by a gubernatorial proclamation, is critical to counties, she said.
“Having that clarification was really important to them, because they don’t want to lose that participation that they gained in the last couple of years,” McAleenan said.
Fancher said government meetings going remote allowed for the public to get a better look at what their officials were doing. The frequent recording of those remote meetings allowed the public to access them long into the future, he said.
Starting in June, government bodies will be required to take comments from the public, either verbally or in writing, “at or before every regular meeting at which final action is taken” – except in emergencies.
If a person is unable to physically attend a meeting and wishes to provide verbal comment, the body must provide an opportunity for the person to speak remotely if other verbal comment is accepted.
Bock said there are some questions about the wording of the law that cities will have to work out with their legal teams, though cities largely have provided some kind of opportunity for public comment in the past.
“Cities across the board, large and small, were generally already offering public comment in at least some of their meetings in some form,” she said. “So, this isn’t a wholesale change for cities. It’s just how it’s drafted and then figuring out, ‘What does that legally mean?’ ”
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said the public comment requirement is the most significant change in the public meetings law update. Some meetings in the past didn’t include opportunities for verbal comment as it was not required, he said, but the council is prepared to meet the changed standards.
“We will make sure that we either provide time for oral testimony or give the public a clear route to provide written testimony,” Beggs said in an email.
Smaller communities, like the city of Millwood and the town of Rockford – with populations of about 1,800 and 500, respectively – said the pandemic pushed them to provide options for remote attendance and comment for their council and board meetings.
Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman said the city is “committed” to providing continued opportunities for spoken comment both in person and remotely. Rockford town clerk Heidi Johnson said anyone can ask to attend or speak at a council meeting through Zoom or the phone, even as in person attendance goes back to normal.
Even with the public meetings act updates in the books, conversations on how to make government more open and accessible will continue. Bock said some cities are interested in being allowed to have fully remote meetings outside emergency conditions. McAleenan said county commissioners are interested in holding regular meetings out in their jurisdictions, rather than at the county seat where they are currently required to meet.
Fancher said one of the many initiatives his coalition wants to take on is a discussion with officeholders and the public to figure out how to establish an independent, public advocate for government openness. A key part of that openness, he said, is government records.
“What needs to be asserted is, these are public records, they belong to the public,” Fancher said. “The public is entitled to look at them, have them and utilize them – unless there’s some exemption that says this record can’t be made public. Absent that exemption, the public has a right to know.”