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What Can and Can't Local Government Officials and Employees Do to Support or Oppose an Initiative Measure

May local government staff or officials prepare or distribute campaign materials in support of or opposition to an initiative during work hours?

No. Clearly this would violate the prohibition against use of public facilities to support or oppose ballot propositions. This prohibition applies to elective and appointive officials and employees of counties, cities, towns, school districts, port districts, transit districts and other special districts.

May a local government officer or employee campaign for or against an initiative on his or her own time?

Yes, this is allowed without violating any legal restriction. This may include preparing campaign brochures or literature, helping with mailings, doorbelling, and so on. As long as public facilities are not utilized and the work is done on private time, there is no violation. This is expressly authorized in WAC 390-05-271(1), which provides that RCW 42.17A.555 does not restrict the right of any individual to express his or her personal views concerning, supporting, or opposing a ballot proposition so long as such expression does not involve a use of public facilities.

May local government employees or officials prepare and distribute to citizens a neutral fact sheet concerning the fiscal impacts of an initiative on agency revenues and possible impacts on expenditures?

Yes, and this may include utilizing staff to research the impact of a ballot proposition for the purpose of gathering facts. The Washington Administrative Code in WAC 390-05-271 specifically allows a local government to make an objective and fair presentation of facts relevant to a ballot proposition, when such action is a normal and regular part of the conduct of the local government. This information may be distributed to citizens by using the normal methods of communication that each local government uses to communicate with its citizens - such as newsletters, utility mailings and so on.

May a local government officer or employee write, on his or her own time, a letter to the editor of the local newspaper expressing a position on an initiative?

Yes, and the officer or employee may also identify in the letter his or her position with the local government. However, there should be no implication in the letter that the writer of the letter is expressing an official position on behalf of the local government concerning this initiative.

May a local government governing body, such as city council or county commission, pass a resolution in support of or opposition to a specific initiative at an open public meeting?

Yes, this may be done if two procedural steps are followed. First, any required notice for the meeting must include the title and number of the ballot proposition. Second, members of the legislative body or the public who hold an opposite view must be given an approximately equal opportunity to express their views at the meeting. If these procedures are followed, the elective governing body of a local government may pass a formal resolution in opposition to or support of a specific initiative.

May a local government elected official make a statement in support of or opposition to a specific initiative at a press conference?

Yes, this also is allowed as an exception to the general prohibition. This exception only applies to elective officials and not other staff or employees. The exception is limited to making the statement and does not allow staff to distribute such statement at public expense.

May a local government allow use of a public meeting room on a nondiscriminatory basis to allow a public forum to discuss or debate the impacts of an initiative?

Yes, this should be allowable assuming that the local government has a policy that routinely allows use of one of their meeting rooms by the public. Use of the meeting room as a forum for a debate would then be a part of the normal and regular conduct of the local government. The meeting room should be made available on the same terms as apply to other groups who wish to utilize the room. For example, rent should be charged for use of the meeting room if that is the normal policy. Also, both proponents and opponents of the initiative must have equal access to the meeting room on a nondiscriminatory basis.

What resources are available if there are further questions concerning this subject?

The legal staff at Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) is available to help answer questions concerning the prohibition on use of public facilities in ballot campaigns. MRSC can be contacted at (206) 625-1300, by fax at (206) 625-1220 or by e-mail at mrsc@mrsc.org. Also, the staff at the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) will help local government officials interpret and apply this law. The PDC may be contacted at (360) 753-1111 or by fax at (360) 753-1112.


Last Modified: January 08, 2016