Public Hearings -- How Much Notice Is Required?
May 8, 2013
Category: Legislative Body
MRSC routinely receives calls on this issue, and as with many issues, the answer is: “that depends.” There are many public hearings that cities and counties are required by statute to hold - for instance, when a city or county enacts a moratorium or interim zoning control, adopts the annual (or biennial) budget, adopts a comprehensive plan, etc. Often the statutes that require a public hearing specify precisely how much notice must be given to the public and how the notice is to be provided; sometimes they do not.
To assist with looking up public hearing requirements, see MRSC's publication Local Ordinances for Washington Cities and Counties, which includes (in the appendices) a list of actions for which a public hearing is required, alon with the corresponding statutes.
But what if the statute does not indicate how much notice has to be provided? Or what notice should be provided if the council or commission is holding a public hearing that is not required by statute, such as where it wants to get feedback from the public on a particular issue?
Our general advice is that, when not specified in the relevant statute or when holding a hearing not required by statute, "reasonable notice" be provided - seven to ten days notice is what we generally recommend. We also recommend that each jurisdiction adopt a general notice requirements for such hearings, so that time pressure does not result in your jurisdiction holding a public hearing with less than adequate notice.
How should notice be provided? If the statute requiring the public hearing specifies how much notice must be given, and how, then that is the minimum; obviously a local government can provide more notice. Some statutes specify that notice must be provided by publishing twice in a local newspaper, at least a week before the public hearing. Some statutes merely specify the timing of the notice, but not whether there must be more than one publication. Our general advice is that notice must be published only once if the relevant statute does not require more.
But who reads notices of public hearings published in the local paper? -- probably not most residents. For that reason we strongly recommend that local governments also use other common and more effective ways to communicate with residents: post notices of public hearings prominently on the jurisdiction’s website, or popular community web sites. Some jurisdictions routinely post notices of public hearings on established bulletin boards at such places as city halls, county courthouses, post offices, etc. Use effective means to communicate with your residents, and keep a good record of what notice was provided.
Sometimes the public seems disinterested in participating in the policy development process, and complying with notice requirements seems like a lot of fruitless effort and expense. But often the reverse is true: members of the public show up, speak, and provide perspectives that assist the legislative body.
Public hearings also provide an opportunity for the public to vent their frustration over unpopular policy proposals. That is a messy part of the democratic process. Open government – it’s an ongoing dance where sometimes shoes get stepped on. When the music stops, bow to your partner and move on.
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.