It’s Sunshine Week Somewhere
National Sunshine Week hits the country and Washington State the week of March 13-19, 2023. Sunshine Week is a relatively new concept nationwide, at least branding-wise. It was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now News Leaders Association), with the aim of promoting open government.
However, local governments in Washington State have been subject to open government laws for much longer than that, with the adoption of the Public Records Act (PRA) and the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) in the early 1970s. These laws have evolved over the years, with the state legislature continually adopting new requirements to help improve access to government information.
Despite the fact that mistrust between the public and local government staff and elected officials does exist, the reality is that local governments throughout the state make significant efforts to comply with PRA and OPMA requirements. Local governments also continue to explore and implement other creative ways to make their jurisdiction’s information more easily accessible.
So, while it’s too soon to say whether we will see actual sun throughout the state during National Sunshine Week (especially in the Pacific Northwest where grey skies are lingering), this blog will explore how Washington State local governments have for decades supported (and continue to support) the key concept behind Sunshine Week: government transparency.
Remote Access to Public Meetings
Since the legislative body can only transact government business during their public meetings, access to those meetings is critical for an involved public. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many local governments in the state were providing the public with an option to remotely view the legislative body’s public meetings. Now, post-pandemic, it’s even more common for a local government to provide the public with online access to meetings of the governing body.
While the OPMA does not require that local governments provide a remote access option for their meetings (absent a declared emergency pursuant to RCW 42.30.230), it does encourage it, stating in RCW 42.30.220(1):
Public agencies are encouraged to make audio or video recordings of, or to provide an online streaming option for, all regular meetings of its governing body, and to make recordings of these meetings available online for a minimum of six months.
MRSC Legal Consultant Oskar Rey explores effective methods to increase public participation in meetings and improve government transparency in his 2022 blog, Technology and Open Government: Maximizing Participation and Transparency.
Online Access to Local Government Public Meetings and Information
Although local governments aren’t required to have their own website, all but the smallest local governments are required to post their preliminary meeting agendas online no later than 24 hours in advance of meetings of the governing body (RCW 42.30.077).
While minutes and recordings of meetings are not required to be posted online, they must be provided in response to a public records request, even if the records request is received before the minutes have been approved by the governing body. Despite no legal mandate to post minutes or meeting recordings online, many local governments choose to do so, which results in increased government transparency by making the information more readily available to the public.
Required Open Government Training
Almost 10 years ago now, the legislature adopted the Open Government Trainings Act, requiring elected officials and public records officers (PROs) to receive training on the OPMA and the PRA (as well as records retention for PROs). See RCW 42.56.150, RCW 42.56.152; RCW 42.30.205.
This training requirement ensures that elected officials and PROs enter their offices with basic knowledge and understanding of the importance of a transparent government. The main focus of both the PRA and the OPMA is to ensure transparency. Both laws include this strongly worded, oft repeated in case law, statement:
The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed and informing the people's public servants of their views so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.
What this means in practical terms is that all business of the governing body must take place in the public eye at public meetings and that every agency record pertaining to the conduct of government, regardless of format, is considered a public record.
The PRA’s application to a wide range of records types has become crystal clear over the years through case law: O’Neill v. Shoreline, (holding that metadata associated with an agency email is a public record); Nissen v. Pierce County (holding that text messages on a personal phone can be public records); and West v. Puyallup (holding that personal social media posts can be public records if they were posted within the scope of employment). Legal Consultant Sarah Doar explores this concept in more detail in her recent MRSC blog: Private Lives of Public Employees: The PRA Implications of Working for the Government.
The requirement that each newly elected official and records officer receive open government training helps ensure that the individuals in these positions are well-versed in the critical role transparency plays in local government from the outset of their public agency service. The requirement to take refresher training periodically also helps these officials stay up-to-date on new case law and legislation on the OPMA and PRA.
Through the PRA and the OPMA, Washington State has adopted effective measures to help local governments in the state meet the motto of The Sunshine Week: Open government is good government.
MRSC continues to assist in this regard with its robust webpages on the OPMA and the PRA, as well as our frequent trainings on these subjects. We are also cognizant of the public pressure felt by staff and officials to ensure compliance with the spirit of open government, and offer trainings to assist, such as our recent webinar: Community Engagement Strategies That Build Public Trust (which can be found under the Leadership category on our On-Demand Trainings webpage).
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.