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The Oath of Office for Local Elected Officials

taking an oath of office

After the election results have been certified, any person elected to an office in the State of Washington, including positions within counties, cities, towns, and special districts, is required by statute to take an oath or affirmation of office prior to serving (RCW 29A.04.133). MRSC often receives questions about the oath of office, primarily concerning the logistics of administering and documenting the oath of office.

When Can the Oath Be Taken?

Many local elected officials take their oath and complete the necessary paperwork at the first regularly scheduled meeting of the new term of the body. Note that the oath does not have to be taken at a formal meeting of the governing body, but it often is. This sometimes creates the situation that the newly elected official has not technically assumed their office despite their term starting prior to that first meeting of the year.

To address this issue, RCW 29A.60.280(3) offers two additional options for taking the oath prior to the first of the year, including:

  • Up to 10 days prior to the scheduled date of assuming office (typically January 1).
  • At the last regular meeting of the city, county, or special purpose district governing body held before the person elected is to assume office — If the governing body meets in a regular meeting only once in December, regardless of date, the oath can be taken at that meeting.

If the oath is taken prior to January 1, then the elected official assumes office precisely at midnight on the morning of January 1. A ceremonial oath can be performed later at the first meeting of the year if this is desired.

A word about timing…

If the elected official takes the oath more than 10 days before they are to assume office and not at a regularly scheduled meeting in December, this, technically, is a violation of RCW 29A.60.280(3), and the official should cure the error and retake the oath as soon as possible. However, due to a legal concept known as “the de facto officer” doctrine, the actions taken by that official before the error is corrected are still valid. Note that if an official refuses or neglects to take the oath, it can create a vacancy in the office under RCW 42.12.010(6), but MRSC takes the position that taking the oath too early is not a refusal or neglection to take the oath.

What if an official was reelected to the position?

Regardless of whether an official is first elected to a position or reelected to it, this person must take a new oath before the new term of service begins.

What if the official is elected to serve a “short term”?

For seats that are vacant or filled by an appointee prior to the election, the winning candidate assumes office immediately after becoming qualified, which occurs once the votes have been certified and the winner takes their oath and posts a bond. The newly elected official then fills what is called the "short term," which is typically early November until December 31. However, for the full term, which begins January 1, that same official should take the oath of office again and can do so using one of the options listed above. For more information, see RCW 42.12.040 and 42.12.070(6).

Who Can Administer the Oath?

The oath of office may be administered by any notary public or by any other officer authorized by statute to administer oaths per RCW 29A.04.133(3). This list of officials “authorized” to administer the oath include the following:

Note that persons authorized to administer oaths are not limited to only provide that service within their own jurisdiction. This is especially important for special purpose districts because district commissioners and administrators are not authorized to administer oaths and will need to reach out to another local agency or court for that service.

Can a state or federal member of congress administer the oath?

After searching the statutes, MRSC has determined that state and federal members of congress are not one of the types of officials authorized by law to administer the oath, unless they also hold one of the positions listed above or are a notary. However, this only applies to the official written oath that is kept on file with the county auditor. Anyone, including members of congress, can administer a ceremonial oath, which can be taken at any time and does not need to be filed with the county auditor.

What Wording Must Be Used in an Oath?

When an individual is elected to office, they swear or affirm that they will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of the office to the best of their ability. Unless your jurisdiction has adopted a specific oath of office, no particular wording or form of the oath is required — however, the following text is commonly used:

I, _____, do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the State of Washington, and all local ordinances, and that I will faithfully and impartially perform and discharge the duties of the office of _____, according to the law and the best of my ability.

Here are some sample oaths from various local governments applied to a variety of positions:

Does the oath have to be administered orally?

There is no requirement that the oath be administered orally, only that a written oath be filed with the appropriate office.

Must the oath be administered in person?

Technically, RCW 29A.04.133 does not explicitly state that the oath must be taken in the physical presence of another person. Other statutes and court rules refer to oaths and sworn testimony being performed “before a person authorized to administer oaths.” See, for example RCW 46.20.091(2) and Wa. CR 28. But there is no such language in RCW 29A.04.133.

This creates the possibility that the oath of office can be administered via phone or video conference. At most, RCW 29A.04.133 requires the oath taker to “subscribe” an oath and the oath administrator to “certify” the oath. The dictionary definition of “subscribe” includes to “append one’s signature,” and the definition of “certify” includes “to vouch for in writing.” This creates an expectation that both parties will eventually sign the document that gets filed. However, if the oath administrator is comfortable “vouching” for the fact that the oath was subscribed to by the person taking it even if the administrator “certifies” the written oath at a later date, this may meet the requirements of the statute.

That said, local rules may require the oath to be taken in the physical presence of the person administering it. Additionally, any agency considering a ‘remote oath-taking’ option should have their attorney evaluate and approve such a practice.

Filing the Oath of Office

For most local elected officials, the completed oath must be filed with the county auditor. Here are some statutory references for that requirement:

Most special purpose districts are not required to file their oaths with the county auditor but the district’s applicable RCWs should be consulted. The written oath should still be retained in the public records of the district for the relevant retention period.

Additional Resources

If additional questions arise, be sure to contact your jurisdiction’s legal counsel or reach out to one of our consultants through Ask MRSC. MRSC also offers a wide variety of resources for newly elected officials, including:

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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MRSC Insight reflects the best writing of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts.