The Oath of Office for Local Elected Officials
December 6, 2019
Category: Administrative and Elected Officials
This time of year, MRSC gets a lot of questions about the process of administering the oath of office for newly elected local officials. We often cite a 2013 blog post by former legal consultant Pat Mason — and the credit goes to Pat for writing a blog with such enduring value — however, we still get nuanced questions that go beyond that original post, so we decided it was time to update it.
Now that the fall local government elections are over and results have been certified, the final step that local government elected officials must complete before assuming office is to take the oath of office.
MRSC receives questions about three basic issues involved with the oath of office:
- When can the oath of office be taken?
- Who can administer the oath of office?
- What wording must be used for the oath of office?
When Can the Oath Be Taken?
Typically, a newly elected official begins his or her term on or after the first day of January following the election, but only after or upon taking the oath of office. The newly elected official may take the oath of office beginning on January 1 or at the first meeting of the governing body after the first of the year. State law also offers two additional options for taking the oath prior to the first of the year. RCW 29A.60.280(3) provides that the oath may be taken:
- Up to 10 days prior to the scheduled date of assuming office (typically January 1). Note that the oath does not have to be taken at a formal meeting of the governing body, although it often is.
- At the last regular meeting of the city, county, or special purpose district governing body held before the person elected is to assume office; If the governing body meets in a regular meeting only once in December, regardless of date, the oath can be taken at that meeting.
If the oath is taken prior to January 1, then the elected official assumes office precisely at midnight on January 1. The oath can be readministered for ceremonial purposes at the first meeting of the year if this is desired.
What if the newly elected is filling a position that is currently occupied by an appointee?
Those who are elected to fill a position that had been filled by a person appointed to it (i.e., to fill a vacancy) may take the oath of office and assume the position as soon as election results are certified. This newly elected official then fills what is called the "short term," from taking the oath of office until January 1. However, for the full term, which begins January 1, that same official should take the oath of office again, and can do so using one of the options listed above.
Do officials reelected to their position have to retake the oath?
Yes. To be technically compliant with the law, the oath must be taken every time a new term of service begins.
What if the official takes the oath more than 10 days before they are to assume office and not at a regularly scheduled meeting in December?
Technically, this is a violation of RCW 29A.60.280(3), and the official should cure the error and retake the oath as soon as possible. However, due to a legal concept known as “the de facto officer” doctrine, the actions taken by that official before the error is corrected are still valid. Note that if an official refuses or neglects to take the oath, it can create a vacancy in the office under RCW 42.12.010(6), but MRSC takes the position that taking the oath too early is not a refusal or neglection to take the oath.
Who Can Administer the Oath?
The oath of office may be administered by any notary public or by any other officer authorized by statute to administer oaths per RCW 29A.04.133(3). The following is a list of the officials in local government who are “authorized” to administer the oath of office (statutory references are available in our publication Getting into Office, page 24):
- Court commissioner
- Judicial officer
- Clerk of court
- County auditor or deputy auditor
- County commissioner or county councilmember
- Mayor of a code city, a town, or a second-class city
- Mayor pro tem of a second-class city
- Clerk of a code city
- Town clerk or deputy clerk
Can a state or federal member of congress administer the oath?
After searching the statutes, MRSC has determined that state and federal members of congress are not one of the types of officials authorized by law to administer the oath, unless they also hold one of the positions listed above or are a notary. However, this only applies to the official written oath that is kept on file with the county auditor. Anyone, including members of congress, can administer ceremonial oaths. A ceremonial oath may be taken at any time. It is only the official oath that must fully comply with the requirements of the law.
What Wording Must Be Used?
When persons elected to office take the oath, they swear or affirm that they will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of the office to the best of their ability. Unless your jurisdiction has adopted a specific oath of office, no particular wording or form of the oath is required; however, the following text is commonly used in the oath of office:
I, _____, do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the State of Washington, and all local ordinances, and that I will faithfully and impartially perform and discharge the duties of the office of _____, according to the law and the best of my ability.
Does the oath have to be administered orally?
No. There is no requirement that the oath be administered orally. The only requirement is that a written oath be filed with the county auditor. Post-Election Odds and Ends; Bonds, Oaths and Taking Office (2017) offers a list of the statutory references for this requirement as it applies to cities, towns, and counties. Most special purpose districts are not required to file their oaths with the county auditor but the district’s applicable RCWs should be consulted. The written oath should still be retained in the public records of the district for the relevant retention period.
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.