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Washington’s Legislature Makes Notable Changes to the Open Public Meetings Act

May 2, 2022

Overview

Governor Inslee’s March 24, 2022 signing of House Bill 1329 marks the introduction of changes to the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), the focus of which concerns public meetings’ accessibility and participation in the same. While the majority of these changes take effect at the fast approaching date of June 9, 2022, the Governor’s signing immediately implemented others. Either way, Washington’s ports should acquaint themselves with these changes and be prepared to apply them immediately. We hope you find this overview of the key changes helpful.

First, HB 1329 has settled the question of whether OPMA requires a physical location for the meeting of a governing body. It is now clear that meetings of a governing body require a physical location where the public can attend, although members of the governing body may attend remotely—by phone or another electronic avenue allowing for real-time verbal interaction. Limited exceptions to the rule include:

  1. Local, state, or federal emergency; and
  2. The grandfathering in of remote meetings regularly held prior to March 1, 2020, but only where the public is granted remote access.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has paused the physical location requirement, and will continue to do so as long as Proclamation 20-28.14 remains in effect. However, upon the proclamation’s expiration, the moratorium on this requirement will end.

A second noteworthy change pertains to the area of public comment. Effective June 9, 2022, except in an emergency, the governing body of a public agency must provide an opportunity for public comment at or before every regular meeting at which final action is taken. Public comment can be taken orally at the meeting or by written comment submitted prior to the meeting. When an individual requests the opportunity to provide oral comment at a meeting remotely because of disability, limited mobility, or another reason that makes physical attendance at a meeting difficult, the governing body shall, when feasible, provide the opportunity to provide oral comment remotely if other members of the public will be allowed to provide oral comment at the meeting.

HB 1329 has also seen a change to the general rule requiring public agencies to post regular meeting agendas online no later than 24 hours in advance of their meetings. Previously, OPMA made exceptions for agencies without a website or those holding less than 10 full-time employees. OPMA now allows for a public agency to share a website with, or have its website hosted by, another public agency. Special purpose districts, cities, and towns that meet certain limited criteria are exempt from these posting requirements. The bottom line is that the threshold for exemption is much more difficult to meet.

Changes have also been made to posting requirements regarding notice for “special meetings,” as the term is defined under RCW 42.30.080. Specifically, unless a public agency does not have or shares a website, notice of a special meeting must be posted on the agency’s website if the meeting will be held remotely or with limited in-person attendance due to a declared emergency. Notice of other special meetings must also be posted online, unless the public agency does not have or shares a website, has no full-time equivalent employees, or has no personnel whose duty it is to maintain or update the website.

Physical posting of notice at the agency’s principal location is not required if the special meeting is being held remotely or with limited in-person attendance due to a declared emergency when notice has been posted on the agency’s website. And when physical posting cannot be done with reasonable safety under the circumstances, the requirement for doing so is excused.

Other changes taking effect June 9, 2022, include the following:

  1. Where the governing body is holding an executive session, the announced session’s purpose is to be included in the meeting minutes; and
  2. Agencies are encouraged to record regular meetings and make those recordings available to the public for six months.

In sum, the recently enacted legislation has modified OPMA in a number of ways, changes that may affect policies and procedures moving forward.

This article summarizes aspects of the law and does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice for your situation, you should contact an attorney.

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