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Vacancies in Local Elected Office: Understanding the New Rules for Special Purpose Districts

A black leather office chair with a sign stating vacancy taped to it

Historically, Washington local governments have had discretion over the process by which they fill vacancies in elected office. Before the 2023 legislative session, RCW 42.12.070 simply provided that for non-partisan offices, the remaining members of the governing body shall appoint a qualified person to fill the vacant position. The process used to fill a vacancy was left to the discretion of the local government.

That changed in 2023 with the adoption of SSB 5437. This legislation amended RCW 42.12.070 and created RCW 42.12.080, which resulted in new requirements for most special purpose districts. Note that this legislation does not impact counties, cities, or towns; Only special purpose districts are affected.

MRSC has updated its Vacancies in Local Elected Offices webpage to address the new requirements for special purpose districts. This blog will briefly summarize the legislation and provide answers to questions MRSC has been receiving about the legislation.

Summary of Legislation

Certain special purpose districts are required to follow RCW 42.12.080 when filling vacancies on an elected nonpartisan governing body. Common examples are water and sewer districts, public utility districts, public hospital districts, port districts, parks and recreation districts, and fire districts and regional fire authorities that do not meet the definition of “qualifying special purpose district” under RCW 42.12.070.

SSB 5437 provides that certain special purpose districts are not required to follow the new requirements in RCW 42.12.080. Under RCW 42.12.070(7), a “qualifying special purpose district” is:

a fire protection district created under chapter 52.02 RCW with assessed values under $5,000,000,000 and a regional fire protection service authority created under chapter 52.26 RCW with assessed values under $5,000,000,000.

A qualifying special purpose district should follow RCW 42.12.070 when filling vacancies and not RCW 42.12.080.

If a special purpose district is not a “qualifying special purpose district,” then it is subject to the new procedures set forth in RCW 42.12.080, unless the provisions of law relating to the special purpose district provide otherwise. In addition, RCW 42.12.080 provides an exception for special purpose districts where property ownership is a qualification to vote. Those districts include irrigation, weed control, and various diking, drainage, and flood control districts; RCW 42.12.080 exempts them.

If there is no exception, then when filling a vacancy, RCW 42.12.080 requires the remaining members of a district’s governing body to:

  • Nominate at least one candidate during a meeting of the governing body;
  • Post notice of the vacancy and the name of the nominee(s) in at least three public places (which may include the district’s website, if it has a website) for at least 15 days;
  • Accept nominations from the district’s registered voters during the 15-day notice period;
  • Appoint a qualified person from the list of nominees at a meeting of the governing body after the 15-day notice period is over.

A governing body has 90 days to fill a vacancy. If there are multiple vacancies, the first vacancy is filled using the process in RCW 42.12.080. Then the governing body repeats the process to fill the next vacancy with the participation of the new appointee. MRSC has additional information on its Vacancies in Local Elected Offices webpage, along with tips, best practices, and examples of processes for filling vacancies.

Frequently Asked Questions

And now for a few FAQs on the new procedures for special purpose district vacancies that fall under RCW 42.12.080.

What concerns was the legislature trying to address by adopting SSB 5437?

I was not able to find much legislative history, but based on the language of the legislation, it appears to be intended to increase transparency and promote public participation with respect to special purpose districts. Many cities and counties stream or record meetings of their governing bodies, but that practice appears to be less common with respect to special purpose districts. Providing a notice and nomination period seems intended to open public service opportunities to a broader cross section of individuals eligible to serve.

Does the requirement for posting a notice of a vacancy to three public places apply only to physical locations?

The legislation does not further define public places, other than to specify that a district website counts as a public place. If a district chooses to post one of the three notices on its website, then it would need to post a notice in at least two other public places.

From a practical standpoint, a district should consider which public places are likely to provide broad public notice of the nomination and vacancy. Posting notice at district facilities seems reasonable for those districts that have physical locations. A district could also post notices at locations managed by other local governments within the district — a city hall or local library for example. The posting location does not need to be on government-owned property, but it should be a place where a person might expect to find public notices. 

Does the district board have to nominate a person to include on the notice of vacancy for 15 days or can it just post the notice of vacancy for 15 days and then review the applications at a meeting following 15 days?

The board will need to include a nominated candidate or candidates in the official notice of vacancy. RCW 42.12.080 requires the remaining members of the governing body to nominate one or more 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 meeting, nominate one or more candidates at the meeting, and post 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 make the appointment.

Is the board required to hold an interview for the selection or are they able to review the applications and make their selections based on the applications received?

The board does not need to hold interviews prior to appointing one of these candidates, but it may do so if it chooses to.

Conclusion

The additional procedural requirements in RCW 42.12.080 will lengthen the time it takes for affected special purpose districts to make an appointment to fill an elected office vacancy. It is important that a district make the appointment within 90 days of the effective date of the vacancy since a district’s authority to fill the vacancy ceases after that. From a planning standpoint, those special purpose districts impacted by RCW 42.12.080 should take into account the additional time required to fill a vacancy and adjust their processes accordingly.



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.

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About Oskar Rey

Oskar Rey is an attorney with Ogden Murphy Wallace PLLC. Prior to this he worked as a legal consultant at MRSC from 2016 to 2024. Oskar has practiced municipal law since 1995 and served as Assistant City Attorney for the City of Kirkland from 2005 to 2016, where he worked on a wide range of municipal topics, including land use, public records, and public works.

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