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In-Person Public Meetings Put on Hold for Now


December 9, 2020  by  Jill Dvorkin
Category:  Open Public Meetings Act Legislative Body COVID-19

In-Person Public Meetings Put on Hold for Now

Editor's note: Beginning February 1, 2021, the Miscellaneous Venues guidance has been updated to allow for optional in-person public meeting components in certain phases. For more recent information, see our blog post COVID-19 and Local Governments: Where Things Stand as of March 22, 2021.


On December 8, Governor Jay Inslee issued Proclamation 20-28.14, extending and modifying the temporary rules governing open public meetings, effective through January 19, 2021. The immediate effect of these changes is that no in-person public meeting option is available anywhere in the state until at least January 4, 2021. (Note: There is a limited exception for election canvassing boards performing operations related to the 2020 general election.)

This blog will describe a new scheme adopted in Proclamation 20-28.14, which provides for an optional in-person public meeting component for all jurisdictions that is tied to how and when business meetings are allowed under the governor’s Stay Safe – Stay Healthy plan (Proclamation 20-25 and its extensions). Business meetings are currently prohibited under the latest Stay Safe – Stay Healthy plan through January 4.

Governor Aligns Guidance for Public and Business Meetings

Proclamation 20-28.14 continues to prohibit meetings subject to the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) unless there is a remote attendance option that meets the standards set forth in the proclamation (i.e., at a minimum, telephonic access, and all people must be able to hear each other at the same time).

In previous versions of Proclamation 20-28, Phase 3 jurisdictions were able to include an optional in-person component to their public meetings if certain conditions were met. In the latest Proclamation 20-28.14, the governor has aligned the guidance for an in-person meeting component of a public meeting with whatever is the current guidance for "business meetings" under the Miscellaneous Venues guidance under Proclamation 20-25, the governor’s Stay Healthy – Stay Safe plan.

However, because of the heightened statewide restrictions related to the most recent COVID-19 surge, currently no in-person business meetings are allowed in any phase throughout the state under the latest Stay Healthy – Stay Safe Proclamation 20-25.9. Therefore, no in-person component of a meeting subject to the OPMA is allowed (except for local canvassing boards). These heightened restrictions are in effect until at least January 4. At such time as the governor adjusts these restrictions, jurisdictions throughout the state will likely be able to include an in-person meeting component consistent with the business meeting guidance of the applicable phase.

Note: Staff necessary to run a meeting are considered essential and can attend in-person if in compliance with guidelines/mask mandates. This has been true throughout the COVID-19 emergency.

The Details of Proclamation 20-28.14

The relevant language of the revised proclamation states:

Prohibition: Any public agency subject to RCW 42.30 is prohibited from conducting a public meeting subject to RCW 42.30 unless (a) the meeting is not conducted in-person and instead provides an option(s) for the public to attend the proceedings through, at minimum, telephonic access, and may also include other electronic, internet or other means of remote access, and (b) provides the ability for all persons attending the meeting to hear each other at the same time.

Exemption from Prohibition: As an exception to the above prohibition, public agencies holding public meetings may, at their option and in addition to hosting the remote meeting elements described above, include an in-person component to a public meeting if all of the following requirements are met:

  1. The open public meeting complies with the guidelines for “business meetings”, found in the “Miscellaneous Venues” guidance here, as incorporated into the Proclamation 20-25 et seq., Stay Safe – Stay Healthy - Rollback of County-By-County Phased Reopening Responding to a COVID-19 Outbreak Surge; and
  2. Any person wishing to attend in person a public meeting with an in-person component must be able to do so at a physical location meeting the requirements herein, either in a primary meeting location or an overflow physical location that provides the ability for all persons attending the meeting to hear each other at the same time; and
  3. If at any time during a public meeting the in-person component cannot comply with each of the requirements herein, the public meeting (to include the telephonic/remote access portions) must be recessed until compliance is restored or if compliance cannot be restored then adjourned, continued, or otherwise terminated; and
  4. The public agency holding an in-person public meeting shall accommodate, to the extent practicable, those wishing to participate in and/or attend the public meeting (to include the press) by allowing persons to attend the meeting by listening and speaking through operable telecommunications devices (examples include using an attendee’s cell phone with service to connect to a conference calling service, or allowing persons to call in using an attendee’s cell phone with service); and
  5. County and other local election canvassing boards performing operations related to the 2020 general election are exempt from the prohibitions set forth in this Proclamation to allow them to perform their operations openly and transparently, provided that such boards must (a) permit all persons entitled by law to observe such operations access sufficient to conduct such observation, and (b) follow Department of Health and Department of Labor and Industries guidelines related to facial coverings, social distancing, sanitizing, and other protective measures enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The proclamation continues to waive requirements to physically post notices of meetings and meeting adjournments on-site. However, agencies are still required to post notices to their websites (if applicable) and notify local news organizations as usual.

Conclusion

Going forward, local governments will want to watch for any modifications to the governor’s Stay Healthy – Stay Safe proclamation (Proclamation 20-25 et seq.) and associated guidance regarding business meetings to determine if an optional in-person meeting component can occur and at what capacity. Of course, local agencies will also want to track any changes to later versions of the OPMA Proclamation 20-28, as well. MRSC will be updating our webpages to reflect changes as they occur.


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 Jill Dvorkin

Jill joined MRSC as a legal consultant in June 2016 after working for nine years as a civil deputy prosecuting attorney for Skagit County. At Skagit County, Jill advised the planning department on a wide variety of issues including permit processing and appeals, Growth Management Act (GMA) compliance, code enforcement, SEPA, legislative process, and public records. Jill was born and raised in Fargo, ND, then moved to Bellingham to attend college and experience a new part of the country (and mountains!). She earned a B.A. in Environmental Policy and Planning from Western Washington University and graduated with a J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law in 2003.

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