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Meeting Participation from Afar, by Speakerphone or Other Means


June 12, 2012  by  Jim Doherty
Category:  Legislative Body

Is actual physical presence required for a member of a local government governing body - city council, board of county commissioners, planning commission, etc. - to "attend" and participate at a meeting of that body?  Although state law provides no specific authorization, MRSC legal staff has taken the position that it is legal for a local government governing body to allow attendance and participation of a member at a meeting by use of a speakerphone or by some more contemporary communication mode such as Skype. This attendance and participation would require clear two-way communication: the member on the phone line or video/internet connection can hear and perhaps see what is happening at the meeting and can also be heard and perhaps be seen by those present at the meeting. If authorized by the body, this can be considered to be attendance at the meeting, and the physically-absent member would count towards the quorum.

Some local government governing bodies in this state - and in other states - have enacted specific meeting rules that allow such participation in meetings; some allow it generally and some allow it on a more limited basis. This is within the discretion of the body.  As such, we recommend that a governing body clarify in its rules of procedure whether and under what circumstances participation by speakerphone or other communication medium will be allowed.

Often this question arises when the need arises; for example, a councilmember or commissioner is needed for a quorum at a meeting on an important matter, but the person is out of town because of a sick relative, a vacation, a child graduating from college, etc.  That’s not the best time to deal with the issue.  We encourage governing bodies to talk this out ahead of time, so that you have time to consider the issue and establish proper procedures.

What about having two absent members of a legislative body participate in a meeting in this manner?  Should that be allowed?  What about the entire body?  A few years ago, the City of Snoqualmie, as an experiment, decided to push the limits with existing technology.  The city council held an electronic public meeting.  None of the city councilmembers were physically present – instead, they were in different locations and used chatroom software to hold a meeting by typing onto their computers.  Advance notice of the meeting was given, and the public was provided an opportunity to view the electronic discussion on their own computers as it was held.  If members of the public wanting to view the meeting didn’t have a computer, they were given directions to locations (city hall and the city library) where they could monitor the on-line discussion.  In an emergency, perhaps electronic meetings of this type could solve difficulties with getting governing body members together in one location on short notice.

So far, no appellate court in the state has interpreted the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) or other potentially applicable laws as either allowing or prohibiting meeting participation in this manner - the issue has not come up.  Nevertheless, I expect a court reviewing this issue would look favorably on the use of speakerphones or computer technology for this purpose.   So, I think it is basically a policy decision for a governing body to make.

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 Jim Doherty

Jim had over 24 years of experience researching and responding to varied legal questions at MRSC. He had special expertise in transmission pipeline planning issues, as well as the issues surrounding medical and recreational marijuana. He is now retired.

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