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Are Your Public Meetings Truly “Open” to the Public?


January 27, 2020 by Sarah Doar
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Are Your Public Meetings Truly “Open” to the Public?

The Open Public Meeting Act (OPMA) requires that “[a]ll meetings of the governing body of a public agency shall be open and public and all persons shall be permitted to attend…” RCW 42.30.030. But what does it mean to be “open” and what should a local government do to ensure that “all persons” have an opportunity to attend?

The OPMA largely answers these questions by requiring advance notice for all meetings and delineating the limited situations where a meeting can be “closed” to the public.

But, I see these as the bare minimums to ensure compliance with the OPMA. Local governments should consider the spirit of the OPMA and take further steps to ensure their meetings are open to “all persons.” One big step is to get creative in removing barriers to attendance, with some major barriers being time and accessibility.

Time

Many jurisdictions conduct their meetings after 5:00 pm to accommodate the classic 9-5 work schedule of both constituents and the members of the governing body. I would challenge agencies to regularly reconsider whether the chosen time does in fact accommodate the needs of their constituents.

For example, is there a major employer in your area that operates on an 18- or 24-hr basis, such as a hospital or factory, making it difficult for second shift workers to attend meetings? Is your jurisdiction primarily a residential community such that a majority must commute outside of the area and cannot get back for a 6:00 pm meeting?  If your jurisdiction meets twice a month, would it be possible to hold one meeting earlier in the day and the other in the evening to accommodate the greater variety of schedules? If your jurisdiction is very large, such as a county, would it be possible to hold meetings in different locations?

Accessibility

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits local governments from discriminating against persons with disabilities in their programs and activities. Since “programs” would include public meetings of the governing body, creating barriers to access or failing to accommodate reasonable requests could be considered discrimination under the ADA.

What does it mean to try and provide access for all persons? At the minimum, this means ensuring that your meeting location is accessible via mobility aids. Are people able to safely navigate the entrance to the building and the meeting location via electric wheelchair, crutches, canes, walkers, knee scooters, or with a steadying-arm companion?

But what about accommodations for people with hearing or vision impairments? In general, under the ADA a city must comply with a request for “auxiliary aids and services” (or for other possible accommodations) unless complying with that request “would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a service, program, or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.”  28 C.F.R. §35.164.

This may be ensuring your meetings are amplified or that you make individual sound amplification devices available. (And, my pet peeve, being sure that speakers consistently speak into the microphone!) There are also many new captioning services and apps that can provide real-time translation. In certain situations, it may be reasonable to provide sign language interpretation. When images or charts are being discussed, speakers should try and describe the image for those with vision impairments. The range of potential services and accommodations is great. At the least, accommodation should likely be made to allow a person to use their own personal auxiliary aids and services.

Importantly, however, does your meeting notice contain a point of contact for persons with disabilities to request assistance or accommodation? As the ADA Title II Technical Assistance Manual section II-7.1100 provides:

It is important to consult with the individual to determine the most appropriate auxiliary aid or service, because the individual with a disability is most familiar with his or her disability and is in the best position to determine what type of aid or service will be effective.

Other Considerations

Every jurisdiction should consider what steps it can take to ensure “all persons” have an opportunity to attend public meetings. Some jurisdictions livestream, televise, or utilize teleconference capabilities so constituents who cannot be physically present are still able to listen to a meeting. Some jurisdictions provide translation services for their constituents that have limited English skills. Some jurisdictions arrange for childcare so parents and caregivers can attend meetings.

Of course, there are likely costs associated with taking these and other steps toward the goal of ensuring your meetings are open to “all persons,” and you will need to balance the cost against the scope of access.

But I encourage you to think creatively, explore new technologies, and reach out to your constituents for ideas. While it may not be possible to be truly “open to all persons,” we can certainly strive for that ideal.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Sarah Doar

Sarah Doar joined MRSC in September 2018.

Most recently, she served as a Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Island County. At Island County, Sarah advised on many aspects of government business, including compliance with public record and opening meeting laws. She also defended the County in Growth Management Act and Land Use litigation. Prior to moving to Washington, Sarah practiced land use, environmental, and appellate law in Florida for over eight years.

Sarah holds a B.A. in Biology from Case Western Reserve University and a J.D. with a certificate in environmental and land use law from Florida State University College of Law.

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