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Does the Open Public Meetings Act Apply to County Finance Committees?

I was asked this specific question at each of the four regional trainings on the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and the Public Records Act (PRA) that I recently participated in and that were sponsored by the Washington Association of County Officials. So I decided it was worth writing a short blog to explain why the MRSC legal staff has concluded that meetings of county finance committees are subject to the requirements of the OPMA.

RCW 36.48.070 requires that counties establish a county finance committee consisting of the county treasurer, the county auditor, and the chair of the county legislative authority. (Charter counties with their home rule authority may have committees of a different composition or other designated officials perform the duties that a finance committee under RCW 36.48.070 is to perform.)  The county treasurer acts as chair and the county auditor as secretary of the county finance committee.

A threshold question for any board or committee established by a local government is whether that board or committee must comply with the OPMA.  The conclusion that the county finance committee established under RCW 36.48.070 is subject to the OPMA may come as a surprise to some because this committee is composed of only one member of the board of county commissioners.  Normally one member of a board of county commissioners or a county council may meet with other county staff or other county elected officials without being subject to the requirements of the OPMA.

The critical factors that make a county finance committees subject to the OPMA are that the committee is created by statute and that it is given clear policy-making authority.  This means that a county finance committee is a “subagency” of the county subject to the OPMA. The definition in RCW 42.30.020(1) of a “public agency” to which the OPMA applies includes:

Any subagency of a public agency which is created by or pursuant to statute, ordinance, or other legislative act, including but not limited to planning commissions, library or park boards, commissions, and agencies.

The OPMA applies only to the governing body of a public agency, including those of a subagency.  Local government subagencies, such as those referenced in the above definition – and a county finance committee, typically consist solely of a governing body.

The OPMA does not define “subagency,” but in AGO 1971 No. 33 the Attorney General’s Office concluded that the following two requirements must be met for an advisory committee, board, or commission to be a “subagency” under the OPMA: (1) it must have been created “by or pursuant to statute, ordinance, or other legislative act”; and (2) it must possess “some aspect of policy or rulemaking authority.” We agree with the reasoning of that opinion.

RCW 36.48.070, which requires the establishment of county finance committees (at least in noncharter counties) sets out a clear statutory grant of policy and rule-making authority for county finance committees.  County finance committees approve both county investment policy and debt policy.  Each county finance committee also makes appropriate rules and regulations for carrying out the state provisions relating to the selection and use of depositaries for all county public funds.

In sum, a county finance committee constitutes a “subagency” of the county, which in turn makes it a “public agency” under the OPMA.  So, as a governing body of a subagency of a public agency, county finance committees are subject to the OPMA.

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 Pat Mason

Pat served as MRSC's Legal Manager and wrote about public records, open public meetings, and just about any other municipal legal issue. He is now retired.