May a County Legislative Body Meet Outside its County to Hold a Joint Meeting with the Legislative Body of Another County?
Sometimes situations and issues arise affecting more than one county such that it would be helpful for the legislative bodies of those counties to meet jointly. Such meetings, if conducted in person, would of course require one of the county legislative bodies to meet outside its county. A recent opinion issued by the Office of the Attorney General, AGO 2014 No. 7, considers whether the legislative authority of one county can meet outside its borders with that of another county, concluding that it could not unless a specific statutory exception exits that allows such a meeting. However, the opinion also concludes that the county legislative authorities could conduct a joint meeting using video conferencing, as long as each authority is physically located within its county seat.
The AGO relies primarily on two county statutory provisions to reach this conclusion. RCW 36.32.080 is clear that regular meetings of the county commissioners to transact business must be held at the county seat, and RCW 36.32.090 is clear that special meetings of county commissions may in certain circumstances be held at locations other than the county seat but within the county. A specific statutory exception is necessary for meetings to be held outside the county.
The AGO highlights two instances where the legislature has specifically granted county legislative bodies the authority to meet outside of their county: RCW 86.13.050, which provides a procedure for calling a meeting of two counties in either county to pursue flood control; and RCW 27.12.100(2), which provides for two or more counties to meet in a joint session to establish an intercounty library district. The opinion notes that the legislature could allow joint meetings of county legislative authorities in more circumstances but so far it has not chosen to do so.
It is important to note that the AGO limits its opinion to “meetings” during which “any business required or permitted” by law takes place. The Attorney General concluded in a previous opinion that county commissioners may attend meetings of other county legislative authorities without violating the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), even if the visiting county commissioners would constitute a quorum of their county’s legislative authority, so long as there is no “transaction of official business of the agency” by the visiting commissioners. See AGO 2006 No. 6. However, the AGO cautions that, under the OPMA, “action” – that may be taken only in an open meeting – includes the “receipt of public testimony.” As such, the visiting commissioners in this scenario would need to consider whether they are receiving public testimony while attending the meeting of another governing body.
The AGO also concludes that the legislative authorities of two counties may conduct joint meetings using video conferencing, while each legislative authority is physically located within its county seat. Although recognizing that there was no authority directly supporting nor prohibiting such joint meetings using video conferencing, the AGO reasons that county legislative authorities have the implied authority necessary to carry out their express statutory duties, so long as that authority is not otherwise limited in some way. The AGO determined that the use of video conferencing allows both the county commissioners and members of the public the ability to be physically present in the county, as required by statute, while also benefitting from the presence of people in neighboring counties. The use of video conferencing is, therefore, within the general discretionary power given to county commissioners.
In summary, this AGO concludes that county commissioners cannot meet in a neighboring county, absent statutory authority for such a meeting. However, the legislative authorities of two or more counties may conduct joint meetings using video conferencing without violating state law as long as each legislative authority is physically located within its county seat.
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