February 28, 2022
Open Public Meetings Act
Sometimes it seems like the law will never keep pace with technology. For example, the Washington State Legislature passed the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) in 1971. Back then, there were no personal computers or smart phones and the word “Internet.” was not used. If a person wanted to attend a public meeting, there was only one way to do so: attend in person.
The OPMA is over 50 years old, but it has not been fully updated to meet the revolutionary advances in computer technology that have occurred in the meantime. There have been a few specific updates, such as RCW 42.30.077 which requires most agencies to make regular meeting agendas available online, but in general OPMA continues to emphasize the in-person participation and does not address other types of public participation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important role technology can play in facilitating participation in public meetings. As of this writing, Emergency Proclamation 20-28.15 remains in effect requiring agencies to meet remotely, provided an agency has the ability to provide a component in person if they meet certain requirements. , including the provision of remote meeting elements.
However, when the emergency proclamation ends, most agencies will likely revert to requirements for in-person public meetings of the OPMA (unless the legislature amends the OPMA in the interim). Meanwhile, some agencies have been proactive in providing voter turnout options and increasing transparency in government. This blog will look at some examples of what agencies are doing in this regard.
One size does not fit all
The best strategy for encouraging audience participation will vary depending on a number of factors, including:
- Access to wireless and broadband infrastructure. Large, densely populated cities usually have access to wireless and broadband. Rural counties and special purpose districts may not, and lack of connectivity can be a barrier to public participation and efforts to promote transparency. The Washington State Broadband Office has information on resources to improve broadband access, and Congress has included broadband in its legislation to Build a Better America.
- Agency communication tools. Some agencies have strong communications strategies that encompass television, websites, social media, press releases, and other sophisticated forms of technology, while others do not. The MRSC Community Engagement Resources webpage has more information.
- Geographical size of the agency. When an agency covers a large geographical area, it may be more difficult for members of the public to travel to a physical meeting place, which may make other forms of participation more desirable. Offering remote participation options also benefits people with scheduling or mobility issues.
- Hours and frequency of agency meetings. Some agencies meet during traditional daytime business hours and others do so in the evening. An agency should consider when, where and how often it meets and the impact this has on the ability of members of the public to attend.
- Agency size and budget. Larger agencies may have an information technology (IT) department or at least one full-time IT professional. But even for smaller agencies, there are cost-effective ways to deploy technology that meets voter needs.
The following examples are intended to help agencies identify where they can make changes that make it easier to participate in government and public meetings. Every agency has unique needs, but these case studies are meant to provide ideas and stimulate dialogue.
Snohomish County Council makes a lot of information available to the public on its website. The board makes videos, agendas and minutes of past meetings available in its meeting archive dating back to 2016. Links to meetings, agendas and minutes for the current month are available at the schedule of board meetings. The county maintains a webpage to help county residents search for elected officials to find out who represents them at the federal, state, and local level, including special purpose districts. The county has also made voting records available for each office on the council since 2004.
Town of Lakewood
Lakewood City Council’s goals for 2021-2024 include a section on transparency that focuses on improving communications and engagement with residents, businesses and community stakeholders on issues, city projects and services. It has a communications webpage where members of the public can receive information and communicate with the city in a number of formats, including various types of social media, email newsletters, and print publications. It also manages event and meeting calendars that can be downloaded or imported into a user’s calendar app. City council meetings can be watched live or after the fact on the city’s YouTube channel and public comment is received via Zoom or phone. The agenda files are available on the city’s website.
North Shore Fire Department (NSFD)
Among Washington’s special purpose districts, the NSFD is one of the first to adopt transparency and participation measures. Its Board Meetings web page provides links to upcoming meetings and stores audio recordings of past meetings for the applicable six-year retention period. Archived meetings include meeting agendas and links to documents that were reviewed at a particular meeting. Members of the public can register to receive advance notice of meetings, including meeting materials. The NSFD holds its meetings on Zoom and has seen a surge in public participation since then.
The NSFD also provides each commissioner with a laptop computer, which has simplified record keeping and minimized technical difficulties during remote meetings since the commissioners use the same technology and software. The NSFD provides for a public comment period at the start of each meeting and provides for the participation of “non-voting advisory members” as an additional means of increasing public participation.
Local governments should not wait for open government laws to change to adopt measures that promote public participation. The Public Records Act and OPMA impose minimum requirements, but many local governments that have chosen to go further find that transparency measures are often inexpensive, result in cost savings over time, and improve relations with the public.
MRSC is a private, nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible Washington State government agencies can use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.