Roles and Responsibilities: Questions and Answers
April 5, 2021
Category: Administrative and Elected Officials , Administrative and Elected Officials-County
This blog explores answers to several questions similar to those asked during a recent MRSC webinar on roles and responsibilities in local government. This blog is also a follow up to my recent blog, Who's the Boss? Separation of Powers in Local Government (which includes links to useful resources about this topic).
Who is in charge of agenda setting for council or board public meetings?
Setting an agenda for a meeting of a governing board is primarily governed by local procedures and practices. State law, RCW 42.30.077 in the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), requires public agencies to make their preliminary agendas available at least 24 hours in advance of a public meeting. The preliminary agenda must be posted online if the agency has a website and at least 10 full-time employees. Changes may be made to published agendas. There is no state law establishing how the agenda is prepared or modified. Ideally, agenda setting will happen in the spirit of communication and collaboration between all parties.
In many cities, a mayor and clerk prepare the council’s preliminary meeting agenda, often with input from council members — such as in an agenda setting council committee — or via other communications. Although the mayor presides over city council meetings, per RCW 35.27.160, the meetings remain meetings of the council, and the council establishes its own rules for the conduct of those meetings (see RCW 35.27.280). So, the meeting agenda should reflect what the council wants to consider. For more information, see City Council Meeting Agendas.
Likewise, for county councils or special purpose district boards, local practice and procedures may address agenda setting. The presiding officers, often the board chairs, will work with staff and other members to create meeting agendas.
Whether to allow one member of the governing body to add an item to a meeting agenda is a matter for the council, commission, or board to decide in its local rules of procedure. At the start of the meeting, the governing body should adopt the preliminary agenda as its final agenda or allow members to amend it. To amend an agenda during a meeting, one member would make a motion to add, remove, or modify an agenda item. Then a majority vote of those members present would be required to adopt the agenda as amended.
Authority to Call a Special Meeting
Who has legal authority to call a special meeting under the OPMA in a city, a county, or a special purpose district?
Either the presiding officer or a majority of the members of the governing body may call a special meeting of the governing body. In the OPMA, for special meetings, RCW 42.30.080(1) provides, in relevant part:
(1) A special meeting may be called at any time by the presiding officer of the governing body of a public agency or by a majority of the members of the governing body…
This statute has additional notice provisions for the public and the media (see our Open Public Meetings Act topic page). In a city, the presiding officer is the mayor. For counties, the presiding officer is the chair of the council or board of county commissioners, and for special purpose districts, the board chair presides over the meetings.
Job Descriptions and Elected Officials
Does a city council have the legal authority to add to a mayor’s job description?
A city (or town) council may not add duties to a mayor’s statutory powers and duties. The powers and duties of mayors are set forth in the RCWs, including RCW 35A.12.100, RCW 35A.13.030, and RCW 35.27.160. There is typically not a written job description for mayors, such as those for city employees and appointed officials. The city or town council and mayor may communicate with each other about a particular duty or responsibility and agree on a path forward.
There is a difference between adding duties and delegating authority. A city council does have legal authority to delegate some of the council’s authority to a mayor or city manager. For example, in the case of contracting, the council has the power to enter contracts on behalf of the city. Many city councils delegate a portion of their contracting authority to the mayor or city manager for certain types of mostly routine contracts and up to a certain dollar amount. Of course, councils may also make requests of the mayor. Again, communication and agreement will both help in understanding how such duties are carried out.
Local government works better when we allow our elected officials and agency staff do their jobs and respect each person’s unique role. Improved communication, trust, and transparency are an important part of respecting each other’s roles and responsibilities and working together effectively.
For more resources on questions like these, please visit our website (try a “key words” search using our search tool) or use our Ask MRSC feature. For legal advice about a specific challenge, please consult with your city, town, county, or special district legal counsel.
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.