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Ask MRSC Archives

Below are selected “Ask MRSC” inquiries we have received from local governments throughout Washington State in recent months and years. Click on any question to see the answer; use the drop-down menu to browse inquiries by topic.

These questions are for educational purposes only. All questions and answers have been edited and adapted for posting to the MRSC website, and all identifying information, including the inquirer’s name and agency name, has been removed.


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Reviewed: February 2024

Regarding regular and special meetings of the council, the only requirement under the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) is to post a preliminary agenda online at least 24 hours in advance for regular meetings (see RCW 42.30.077) and to provide a meeting notice at least 24 hours in advance for a special meeting that specifies the time and place of the meeting and the business to be transacted (see RCW 42.30.080).

In general (although see caveat below), there is no state law requirement to provide a council packet or materials pertinent to an action to the public prior to the council taking final action. However, there may be local rules about making a council packet available to the public prior to the meeting.

In addition, certain legislative and quasi-judicial actions of the council may require that notice and/or information be made available to the public prior to the action occurring. I do not have an exhaustive list of the actions for which specific notice and/or information must be provided, but some examples include the notice associated with a street vacation (see RCW 35.79.020), notice associated with municipal annexations (see, e.g., RCW 35A.14.130), and State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) threshold determinations on certain project and non-project actions (see Chapter 43.21C RCW). I recommend consulting with your city attorney if you have questions about any specific action of the council to see what type of notice and information must be made available.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: February 2024

Neither RCW 57.08.005(11) nor RCW 57.08.081, related to the district’s authority to establish rates, require any advance notice or a public hearing for a rate change. There may be locally adopted district rules or policies related to the board’s adoption of new rates—so any district should consult its local rules.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: February 2024

Health insurance is not considered compensation for elected officials and is not subject to the state constitution's limitations on increasing salaries of elected officials. Below is additional information from the Elected Officials section of our Health Insurance Benefits page:

By the state constitution the salary of local elected officials may not be increased after their election or during the officer’s term of office (Art. XI, section 8). Adding medical insurance coverage to elected officials after their election, one might think, would violate this constitutional prohibition, but it does not. RCW 41.04.190 provides that:

The cost of a [health insurance] policy or plan to a public agency or body is not additional compensation to the employees or elected officials covered thereby.

Most health benefits for elected officials are adopted informally by a motion but they can also be adopted by resolution. See the example below.

  • Lynden Resolution No. 995 (2019) – Authorizes the mayor and councilmembers to enroll in a health insurance plan currently offered to qualified city employees

A stipend could also be given to an elected official instead of health insurance, but a stipend would be treated as extra compensation. Given the constitutional prohibition against additional compensation during a term of office, the stipend could not be given or accepted until the officer starts or is re-elected into a new term. While the provision of medical insurance to an elected official is not considered by statute to be additional compensation (RCW 41.04.190), there is no similar provision made for stipends.

See the policy example below:

For more information on the provision of health and other benefits to elected officials, see our blog post, Elected Officials and Benefits Programs.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: February 2024

The addition of amenities like trees as part of Complete Streets is common and trade-offs are made based on local context. For example, if space constraints limit the ability to plant trees, reducing pavements widths on an excessively wide street provides an opportunity to add a tree belt or planted curb extension. See this 2023 Johns Hopkins study on narrow lanes.

Here are some examples of local programs and policies that reference amenity zones, street trees, etc., in their complete streets policies/programs:

Stormwater best management practices (BMP), like roadside bioretention/rain gardens and bioswales are another area to look at for guidance (see bioretention section starting on pg. 687 of King County’s 2021 Surface Water Design Manual and Bothell’s Bioswales page). Your city’s stormwater engineer and Ecology can provide guidance on incorporating low impact development (LID) and stormwater BMPs into ROW. This LID presentation from Ecology’s LID guidance page includes reduced road width and changes in road layout and orientation as potential code amendments for implementing LID principles.

Tree planting programs also include standards that may be helpful. Everett provides ROW tree spacing and location guidelines, for example (see Everett’s Right of Way Street Tree Spacing and Location Guidelines (2019)).

And here are a few additional resources:

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: January 2024

While you will need to confirm this with your city attorney, we think this action would likely fall within the following categorical exemption and therefore be exempt from SEPA review. WAC 197-11-800(19) provides:

(19) Procedural actions. The proposal, amendment or adoption of legislation, rules, regulations, resolutions or ordinances, or of any plan or program shall be exempt if they are:
(a) Relating solely to governmental procedures, and containing no substantive standards respecting use or modification of the environment.
(b) Text amendments resulting in no substantive changes respecting use or modification of the environment.
(c) Agency SEPA procedures.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: January 2024

There are federal standards and limitations regarding hours of service for commercial drivers. See this Summary of the Hours of Service Regulations for property- and passenger-carrying drivers from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA); the FMCSA Hours of Service page, and 49 C.F.R. Part 395. See also the Washington State Department of License’s Commercial Driver Guide at p. 1-20 that includes a summary of the limitations on hours of service (Section 1.10.12).

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: January 2024

It is fairly common for cities to send newsletters to their citizens, although perhaps e-newsletters are more common now. Developing the newsletter content and format would be considered an administrative task and under the purview of the executives (city administrator, mayor), similar to the city website or city social media. Depending on the cost of the newsletter, perhaps the council could look at continuing the newsletter through the budget process or otherwise adopt a policy regarding the city newsletter.

One legal issue to be cautious about regarding city newsletters is the prohibition on using agency facilities for campaigns. So, the newsletter should not be used to support or oppose a candidate or a ballot proposition (unless it’s an objective and fair presentation of the facts relevant to the ballot proposition, and such action is part of the normal and regular conduct of the office or agency). See RCW 42.17A.555.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: January 2024

Weed control can be handled either by the county or by a separate district. Under RCW 17.10.020 every county has a weed control board that is inactive until the county government activates it under RCW 17.10.040. That board is part of the county government. Or the county can create a weed control district under Chapter 17.04 RCW. That district is a separate legal entity, although Chapter 17.04 RCW does provide that the county treasurer and prosecutor perform some duties on behalf of the district.

MRSC’s List of Special Districts by Type of District and County (Excel file) provides a periodically updated list of special purpose districts and the counties in which they exist. If the agency you are looking for is not on that list there is a good chance it is a county board and not a separate entity.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: January 2024

Liability and risk management questions are beyond the scope of MRSC’s general legal guidance. However, we can provide the following general comments. First, your risk management insurer will likely have resources regarding how to manage risks and maintain these public trails in a way that is reasonably safe. We suggest contacting them right away.

It is important to have a maintenance plan where regular inspections are performed, and potential hazards are documented and repaired promptly. This could be similar to how the city manages its public streets and sidewalks. When notice of a hazard is received, either via inspections or reports by employees or members of the public, then temporary and permanent repairs should be made. Warning signs, cones, temporary paint, caution ribbon, etc. are options, as are closing portions of a trail if adequate warning signs are not enough to protect users from a particular safety hazard.

Regarding municipal liability for streets, sidewalks, and bridges, there are pattern civil jury instructions in WPI chapter 140, that set forth the law about these duties:

WPI 140.01 – Sidewalks, Streets, Bridges and Roads—Duty of Governmental Entity

The [county] [city] [town] [state] has a duty to exercise ordinary care in the [design] [construction] [maintenance] [repair] of its public [roads] [streets] [sidewalks] [bridges] to keep them in a reasonably safe condition for ordinary travel.

WPI 140.01.01 – Duty of Governmental Entity to Remove or Correct a Hazardous Roadway Condition

The [county's] [city's] [town's] [state's] duty includes a duty to take reasonable steps to remove or correct hazardous conditions that make a [road] [street] [sidewalk] [bridge] unsafe for ordinary travel [including hazardous conditions that may exist along the [road] [street] [sidewalk] [bridge]].

Similar jury instructions would likely apply for claims about incidents on public walking paths and trails.

We recommend you consult with your city attorney and your risk pool insurance representative(s). They are in the best position to help with risk prevention and management in relation to the city’s walking trails.

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Reviewed: December 2023

RCW 82.46.037 discusses the requirements for using REET 2 for maintenance. First, the city would be limited to the greater of $100,000 or 25% of available REET 2 funds not to exceed $1,000,000. REET 2 can be used for:

  • Maintenance of REET 2 projects
  • Planning, acquisition, construction, reconstruction, repair, replacement, rehabilitation, improvement, or maintenance of REET 1 capital projects that are not also included in the definition of REET 2 capital projects

In order to use REET 2 for these purposes, the city would need to prepare a written report showing the city will have sufficient funding to pay for all of its capital projects. The report must include:

  • Information necessary to show compliance with the requirement to have sufficient funding for all capital projects
  • How REET 2 revenues were used by the city during the prior two-year period
  • How REET 2 revenues were used by the city during the succeeding two-year period
  • The percentage of REET 2 funds used for capital project compared to all other sources of capital project funding.

This report must be prepared and adopted as part of the city’s public budget process.

“Maintenance” is defined in RCW 82.46.037 as:

[T]he use of funds for labor and materials that will preserve, prevent the decline of, or extend the useful life of a capital project. "Maintenance" does not include labor or material costs for routine operations of a capital project.

We could not find language in the statute which says REET 2 used for REET 1 maintenance can only be for capital projects that were paid for with REET 1 funds. The statute merely says, “maintenance of capital projects as defined in RCW 82.46.010(6)(b).”

We recommend conferring with your city attorney for their legal opinion on this matter.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: December 2023

The board will need to include a nominated candidate or candidates in the official notice of vacancy. SSB 5437, which took effect on July 23, 2023, sets forth the new process most special purpose districts (including public hospital districts) are required to follow when filling a commissioner vacancy. Section 2 of the bill, codified at RCW 42.12.080, requires the remaining members of the governing body to nominate a candidate (or candidates) to fill the vacancy at a meeting of the district prior to issuing the notice of vacancy.

In circumstances where the district does not have any candidates in mind to nominate, it would need to solicit applicants prior to nominating a candidate(s) at a meeting and posting the official notice of vacancy pursuant to RCW 42.12.080(2). You could consider it a "call for applicants" followed by an official "notice of vacancy" once the nomination is made at a public meeting. The key will be for the notice of vacancy to include the board’s selected commissioner candidates and then provide an opportunity for registered voters in the district to suggest additional candidates for a period of at least 15 days. Thereafter, the board can select its preferred candidate. The board does not need to hold interviews prior to appointing one of these candidates, but it may do so if it chooses to.

We have examples of vacancy application forms on our Vacancies in Local Elected Offices page.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: December 2023

Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) regulates the law in this area, and they have a helpful document titled Guidelines for Local Government Agencies in Election Campaigns. The guide reviews the state law restriction in RCW 42.17A.555, as applied to standard local government actions. RCW 42.17A.555 provides that agency officials and employees are not to use public facilities or resources to engage in political activities. The guide includes a section entitled Technology (websites, emails, computerized calling system) that informs the question here. In short, email systems are considered public facilities, so a city email shouldn’t be used to aid a campaign for or against a candidate or ballot measure.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: November 2023

In MRSC’s opinion, no. The building permit is unconnected to the delinquent utility account and the city cannot precondition issuance of a building permit on payment of a utility bill.

There are two reasons why this type of procedure is legally suspect. The first is that the statutory provisions that relate to collection of delinquent utility bills do not provide for this type of collection method. So, it is not clear that agencies have the authority to link the issuance of a building permit to payment of delinquent accounts.

Second, this type of requirement likely would violate the provisions of RCW 82.02.020. That statute prohibits local governments from imposing any tax, fee, or charge, directly or indirectly, on the development, subdivision, classification, or reclassification of land except as specifically authorized by statute. A city can recover its actual costs of processing applications, inspections, and reviewing plans, however collection of delinquent utility payments is unrelated to the costs to the city of processing the application.

One case involving allowable charges that may be imposed on the issuance of building permits is Home Builders Association of Kitsap County v. Bainbridge Island (2007). The court in that case invalidated some charges that were being imposed by the city based on RCW 82.02.020. The charges in that case were related more closely to the building permit issuance than trying to recover delinquent utility bills.

Again, our conclusion is that this type of charge would be prohibited by RCW 82.02.020.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: November 2023

The information submitted at a public meeting on a public comment sign-up sheet is subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act (PRA). There is no applicable exemption for the citizen phone numbers. Some agencies include a notice on their sign-up sheets that the information provided is subject to disclosure under the PRA. Below are a few examples of such disclaimers:

Kitsap County Public Comment Guidelines:

All written comments, sign up sheets, meeting minutes and all other material presented at a board meeting are considered public documents in compliance with open meeting and public record laws. All public documents will be available to the general public. Meetings are also recorded for the public record by Bremerton-Kitsap Access Television (BKAT) and are regularly aired on local cable access channels.

Port of Seattle Public Comment at Port Commission Meetings:

Your Comment is a Public Record
Recorded comments, the identity of speakers, and meeting sign-in sheets are public records subject to disclosure under Chapter 42.56 RCW, and the names of speakers are recorded in the meeting minutes.

Tacoma Written Public Comments – Comments will be compiled and sent to the City Council and posted as public record on the City’s web page at cityoftacoma.org/writtencomments. The documents on this page enable the public to view the written comments submitted on the day of the City Council meeting. Their page also states the following:

Please note that the posted comments are not edited and will include all content and information submitted, which, for comments submitted as email, will include the email address from which it was sent.

Other times, an agency will limit what information it requests on sign-up sheets so as not to collect too much personal information from citizens that they may not want made public. For example, sometimes agencies will only request a person’s name and jurisdiction of residence so the citizen’s address and phone number do not appear on the sign-up sheet.

The exemptions in the PRA that allow the redaction of personal information are mostly focused on the personal information of employees or officials of the public agency (although not exclusively). For more information, see the section on Employee/Official Personal Information on MRSC’s Exemptions and Prohibitions for Local Government Records page.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: November 2023

Below is a compilation of several resources regarding funding/financing for renewable energy projects, including examples of renewable energy programs offered by local governments. Local government examples:

Washington State Department of Commerce resources:

Local/regional nonprofits/organizations working in the field of energy transition may be able to provide additional ideas and/or technical assistance. Here are some MRSC is familiar with:

MRSC has many resources on Climate Change, with links to our climate-related blog posts, webinars, and webpages, including:

  • Climate Action Funding and Technical Resources
  • Greenhouse Gas Reduction Strategies for Local Governments
  • Climate Action Plans
  • Local Government Climate Change Documents – Interactive map of climate plans and other climate-related documents. Includes some smaller cities, like Sequim.
  • On-Demand Webinars – Includes a link to a recent webinar on climate funding strategies (in the Climate and Sustainability section).

Puget Sound Energy (PSE) green power/solar resources:

Other resources:

  • White House: Building a Clean Energy Economy: A Guidebook to the Inflation Reduction Act's Investments in Clean Energy and Climate Action
  • C40 Cities: Climate Action and the Inflation Reduction Act: A Guide for Local Government Leaders
  • National League of Cities: How Local Governments Can Use Direct Pay on Clean Energy Projects – Includes three local examples from municipal water and power utilities undertaking clean energy projects that are likely eligible to take advantage of the direct pay option.
  • US Environmental Protection Agency: Clean Energy Finance Tools and Resources

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: October 2023

RCW 29A.84.040 makes it a misdemeanor to remove or deface lawfully placed political advertising including yard signs or billboards without authorization. Check with your city attorney to see if your city has adopted this statute. If so, a violation can be charged in municipal court. If not, it will have to be referred to the county prosecutor.

For a bit more background, a local government cannot prohibit the placement of political signs in the areas between the street and sidewalk (or in the unpaved section of the right-of-way where there is no sidewalk), commonly referred to as the “parking strip.” As a general rule, the public right-of-way, which includes parking strips, is only an easement and the underlying property belongs to the abutting property owner. As such, only the property owner or the tenant of the property owner may determine what, if any, political signs are placed in the parking strip. In contrast, a jurisdiction can prohibit temporary signs in the untraveled area of a right-of-way that does not involve parking strips, such as in boulevard medians or in the middle of roundabouts. For more information, see this blog post, Regulating Non-Commercial Temporary Signs During Election Season, and our Sign Regulation webpage.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: October 2023

The city must have adopted an employee recognition or wellness program, and the dollar amount of each card cannot exceed the limits in that policy (see AGO 1995 No. 13). We are frequently asked if some tangible form of recognition can be given after an employee or group of employees has shown some extra effort or outstanding performance and MRSC consultants consistently reply that any recognition program should be in place beforehand. Having a policy in place before purchasing and distributing the cards avoids the State Constitution’s prohibitions on gifting of public funds, Article VIII, Sec. 7, and the prohibition on extra compensation, Article II, Sec. 25, beyond that set by your city council. If the cards are given as part of an established policy, then the cards are considered as part of an employee’s compensation package.

The MRSC webpage, Employee Recognition and Suggestion Award Programs, includes a number of examples of codes and policies from a variety of jurisdictions.

One thing to note about providing gift cards is that they are considered taxable income to the employee. For more on that, please see the IRS Publication 15-B, Employer's Tax Guide to Fringe Benefits. It states:

Cash and cash equivalent fringe benefits (for example, use of gift card, charge card, or credit card), no matter how little, are never excludable as a de minimis benefit.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: October 2023

Local governments are allowed to provide tuition reimbursement to employees. In order to avoid a gift of public funds issue, local governments should develop a policy that ties the tuition reimbursement to compensation in the form of a benefit. The policy should also articulate the municipal purpose associated with this benefit (e.g., more competent/better trained personnel). Here are some cities that have developed policies:

The policy should include items such as who is eligible, how much can be reimbursed, and any conditions that must be met. You may find additional examples on our Personnel Policy Manuals and Employee Recognition and Suggestion Award Programs pages.

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: October 2023

I assume you are talking about COVID-19 vaccine exemptions that would have been granted as medical or religious accommodations. We talk about the legal basis for accommodations in our blog post, Vaccine Mandates: Accommodating Disability and Religious Belief Exemptions.

Under the Local Government Common Retention (CORE) schedule, GS50-04C-01: Civil Rights – Compliance (Section 504 Accommodations) would apply to the medical exemptions which requires records to be retained for six years after completion of the accommodation. Records related to religious accommodations would be subject to GS2011-171: Civil Rights – Compliance, which is six years after the end of the calendar year.

These retention periods are based on the statute of limitations for someone to bring a lawsuit claiming their civil rights were violated. So, it is important to retain these records not only to comply with the legal retention requirements but also, so they are available in the event your agency is sued.

There are a couple of other retention requirements that are specific to COVID-related records, but they are limited to the following:

  • GS2020-009Security Monitoring – Employee and Public Access (COVID-19 Checks/Logs)
  • GS2021-010COVID-19 Vaccination Status Verification Record

(Link to this question)

Reviewed: October 2023

It depends on the policy and whether it is the type of subject matter that is within the council’s jurisdiction or the mayor’s jurisdiction. But most policies should be adopted by the council – like personnel, public records, code enforcement priorities, etc. There may be certain administrative procedures that the council does not need to formally approve, but we defer to your city attorney to give advice on specific policies.

For more, please see our page on Roles and Responsibilities of Local Government Leaders. Most policies can be adopted by the council via resolution, but sometimes the council may decide they want to adopt the policy into the city code. For example, a code enforcement priority policy is often adopted into code.

(Link to this question)