Working on Council Guidelines? What About Remote Meeting Attendance?
Editor's Note: The question "Are there ever exceptions or special circumstances affecting remote public meetings and OPMA compliance?" was added on March 26, 2020 to inform readers about special cases such as the current coronavirus emergency that caused the Governor to issue Proclamation 20-28 and its subsequent extensions and amendments.
Bad weather, a new baby, an illness, or an out-of-town trip are just a few reasons that elected officials sometimes ask us whether they can attend a meeting by phone or video connection (remote attendance). This blog post reviews what is possible and permissible under the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), special circumstances when portions of the Act may be suspended, what to look out for, and includes sample rules from cities in Washington State.
What to Consider
Does it count if I phone in to the meeting?
Yes. Neither state law nor the Open Public Meetings Act prohibit or limit remote participation, so long as the participant can hear, be heard, and participate effectively in the meeting. In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office issued a new opinion concluding that a governing body is allowed, under the OPMA, to meet via telephone or video conference (“remote attendance”). The usual OPMA requirements apply here, and you must:
- Give proper notice of the meeting time and place
- Ensure that the speaker phone, audio, or video system is set up at the designated meeting place and that it allows attending members of the public to hear all discussion and provide testimony if testimony is required by state law or council rule.
Commissioners or other elected officials who are paid for meeting attendance still get paid for remote meeting attendance.
What about votes and quorums?
A quorum of the governing body can take action even if some or all of the quorum attends remotely. Councilmembers attending meetings remotely via phone or video conferencing are generally recognized as “in attendance” and count towards making up the quorum for business and have the power to vote on business before the council. The meeting chair may even preside as chair remotely, although it could be challenging.
What if we’re all remote?
It’s permissible for all members of the governing body to take part in the meeting remotely. Bad weather has meant that at least one council held a meeting with all councilmembers in remote attendance. It is required that the meeting location shown in the meeting notices be open to the public, and audio must be available so that all actions being taken can be heard. If all elected officials are remote, and the meeting place cannot be opened and set up for public access, the meeting must be cancelled.
Do we need a policy?
It’s a good idea to have a policy in place for remote participation in public meetings. Some cities have limited the number of meetings one can attend remotely and restricted the circumstances under which this is permitted. There may be an instance where a councilmember wants to participate remotely on a long-term basis due to disability or illness. How many members will be allowed to attend remotely? What will the notification or request process be for this?
Are there ever exceptions or special circumstances affecting remote public meetings and OPMA compliance?
Yes. The coronavirus emergency caused the Governor to issue Proclamation 20-28 on March 24, 2020, temporarily (from March 24, 2020 to midnight on April 23, 2020) amending or suspending portions of the OPMA related to in-person contacts. The proclamation prohibits public agencies from conducting any meeting unless it is not conducted in-person, provides an option for public attendance via telephonic, electronic, internet, or other means of remote access and provides the ability for all persons attending the meeting to hear each other at the same time. It also restricts the types of business public agencies may conduct at these meetings. The suspensions are listed in the proclamation with specific portions of the RCWs temporarily waived and suspended.
Additionally, note that the Governor’s proclamation requires telephonic participation as a minimum. A jurisdiction cannot opt to do only video or other internet-based streaming, but must provide a call-in number so that participants can hear the meeting.
Here are sample policies to assist you in writing your own guidelines on remote attendance.
- Ellensburg City Council Meeting Remote Attendance Rules (2019) — Includes a memo from the city attorney.
- Lake Forest Park City Governance Manual Sec. 4.7 (2016) — Outlines how a councilmember may participate in a meeting remotely.
- Mukilteo City Council Rules of Procedure Rule 1(H) (2019) — Allows for the mayor or council president to approve remote attendance and for more than one attendee to participate in a meeting remotely, and offers case-by-case consideration of executive session remote attendance.
- Sequim Resolution no. R2013-003 (2013) — Allows remote attendance and includes thorough sections on protocol and procedures and system requirements.
- Monroe Planning Commission (2019) — Allows remote phone and video attendance for frequent travelers and persons with disabilities, but no more than one commissioner may attend remotely per meeting and no remote attendance is allowed for any meeting portion that includes legislative action.
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