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A Grab Bag of Ask MRSC Questions

A Grab Bag of Ask MRSC Questions

As most MRSC Insight readers know, local government staff and elected officials can seek one-on-one consultations with our team of policy and legal experts using our Ask MRSC form or calling us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. Many of these inquiries, and the responses they generate, can be found in the Ask MRSC Archives.

Sometimes these inquiries are the basis for a blog post, webpage, or even a webinar, but sometimes we respond to questions that may be of interest to others but do warrant a webpage or full blog article. Often these topics impact local governments across the state and generate many related questions.

Here are a few examples.

Common Questions About the Legislative Body

How should a vacant city council position be filled?

If a city council position becomes vacant (e.g., through resignation, death, a move from the district), the remaining councilmembers fill the vacancy. There is no particular process that must be followed. Some cities advertise the vacancy and request letters of interest or applications be submitted. The council may interview candidates or ask for written responses to questions. The council itself determines the process to use. It could, if it so chose, merely appoint the next qualified person who enters the meeting room.

Whatever process is used, the remaining councilmembers vote and the candidate receiving a majority of the votes cast is appointed. If, due to vacancies, a quorum cannot be achieved, the remaining members appoint one member and then that newly constituted group votes to fill the next vacant position, and so on (RCW 42.12.070). 

If there is a tie vote, the mayor may break the tie. The council has 90 days to fill the vacancy. If it is unable to do so, the county legislative body makes the selection within the next 90 days. If there still has been no one selected, the governor may be petitioned to make the appointment. The person appointed serves until a qualified person is elected at the next general municipal election.

Can a council or commission meeting agenda be amended?

The agenda for an upcoming meeting is required to be made available to the public in advance (see, for example, RCW 35A.12.160, RCW 42.30.077, and RCW 42.30.080). What should be done if additional business, not on the agenda, also needs to be considered?

Typically, the legislative body will just add the new items to its agenda, but it should use discretion in doing so. In Port of Edmonds v. Fur Breeders Co-op, the court of appeals invalidated the port’s action to authorize a condemnation since that proposed action was not included on the meeting’s agenda. Adding the item for consideration did not substantially comply with statutory notice requirements or provide meaningful notice to interested persons.

Given the Edmonds decision, what business items can be added? I suggest that if the item to be added is of substantial interest to the public or would affect the rights or responsibilities of citizens, it should not be added. If the item is more routine, such as, for example, recognition of the retirement of a longtime employee, authorizing the parks department to submit a grant application, or providing for a discussion — but no action — on an issue, it likely could be added.

For special meetings, RCW 42.30.080 allows an item to be added, but final action may only be taken if the item was on the original meeting notice.

What happens if there is a tie vote?

Usually, in order to approve a business item, there must be an affirmative vote by a majority of the legislative body. What happens when, due to an absence or vacancy, there is an even number of members present and a vote ends in a tie?

If a motion does not receive the required number of votes, it is not approved. However, sometimes the mayor, who usually presides over meetings without a vote, is allowed to vote to break the tie (see RCW 35.27.280 for towns, RCW 35.23.201 for second class cities, and RCW 35A.12.100 for mayor-council code cities).

The ability of the code city mayor to break a tie is limited, as he or she may only break a tie “with respect to matters other than the passage of any ordinance, grant, or revocation of franchise or license, or any resolution for the payment of money.” MRSC also takes the position that a mayor may break a tie in the appointment of a person to fill a council vacancy as there is no restriction against him or her doing so.

Common Questions About Ordinances

How do you amend an ordinance?

An ordinance may only be amended by the passage of a new ordinance. Typically, the amendatory ordinance will set out the section or sections of the earlier ordinance in full and show what language is added or removed. Language to be deleted can be shown struck over and new language can be underlined or italicized, showing readers what changes are proposed. New sections can be added by noting they are new (“A new section is added to read as follows”).

For additional information on amending ordinances, see our publication Local Ordinances.

Common Questions About Public Hearings

When are public hearings required?

Unless a hearing is statutorily required before adopting an ordinance, none is required. Considering the large number of issues a council or board considers, relatively few business items require a hearing.

A council or commission, however, may want to conduct hearings even when not required to do so, either because a subject is controver­sial (such as a rate increase) or because citizen comment is useful in the development of public policy. Some of the more common subjects requiring a hearing include: direct petition annexations, adoption of the annual budget, approval of a local improvement district, adoption of a moratorium, adoption of the 6-year transportation improvement plan, adoption or amendment of a comprehensive plan, and street vacations.

For a full listing of subjects requiring a hearing and the associated statutory requirements, see Local Ordinances.

Questions? Comments?

These are just a few examples of the types of questions MRSC’s consultants field regularly. Remember, you can contact us anytime with your questions by using our Ask MRSC form or calling us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.

If you have comments about this blog post, please comment below or email Paul Sullivan at

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 Paul Sullivan

Paul worked with many local governments and authored numerous MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operations in his many years at MRSC. He is now retired.