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The Basics of Meeting Agendas

Blank agenda sitting on a meeting table

For governing bodies, regardless of size, public meetings are crucial times in which to review, discuss, and outline policies, develop future plans, and conduct agency business. A well-run meeting efficiently utilizes the time of participating staff and elected officials but also reflects well on the agency in the mind of the public. A comprehensive, well-prepared meeting agenda can keep things moving along while ensuring all participants are on the same page.

What Should Be Included?

There is no state law directing how meeting agendas should be prepared. Most local governments outline their procedures for agenda preparation and the order of business in their rules of procedure. Many examples are available on our Council/Board of Commissioners Rules of Procedures webpage and some approaches are outlined in Setting the Agenda: Less Control, More Cooperation.

Items on the agenda should be prioritized and organized as efficiently as possible, allocating adequate time to considering major issues while minimizing time spent on routine, trivial, or noncontroversial issues. Any member of the governing body may request an item be added to the preliminary agenda, but only the governing body as a whole has the authority to approve the final agenda. Additionally, the agency’s local rules of procedure will determine how an item gets on the preliminary agenda and whether staff or members of the public can request items be added.

Consider the consent agenda

The consent agenda (also known by Roberts Rules of Order as a “consent calendar”) is a tool used to streamline meeting procedures by collecting routine, non-controversial items into a group whereby all items can be passed with a single motion and vote.

Consent agenda items may include approval of previous minutes; executive reports and committee reports provided for information only; correspondence requiring no action; or routine matters such as appointments to committees, project status reports, staff and facility updates, contract renewals, membership and program updates, or other items that require no discussion.

For more information, see Streamlining Meetings Through the Consent Agenda.

Who Should Prepare It?

Some governing bodies delegate preparation of the preliminary meeting agenda to an agency staff member, such as a clerk, mayor, administrator, manager, or some combination of staff. Some choose to have a member of the governing body (e.g., board chair will often take on this duty) prepare the preliminary agenda. 

While a city councilmember, county commissioner, or special purpose district board member can prepare the preliminary agenda, this person must be careful not to solicit conversations with the other members about topics beyond the meeting itself (e.g., scheduling, timing, meeting facility). If members of the governing body were to discuss non-meeting agency-related topics, either one-on-one or in a group, outside of an open public meeting, then this discussion runs the risk of becoming a serial meeting in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). For more information, see What Constitutes a Serial Meeting under the OPMA?

How Should It Be Shared?

RCW 42.30.077 requires any public agencies with a governing body to make the preliminary agenda of each regular meeting available online at least 24 hours before the published start time of the meeting. This applies to all but the smallest local governments that meet the requirements below:

  • Has an aggregate valuation of the property subject to taxation by the district, city, or town of less than $400,000,000;
  • Has a population of under 3,000; and
  • Has provided confirmation to the state auditor that the cost of posting notices on its website or a shared website would exceed one-tenth of 1% of the agency’s budget.

Other laws require additional regular meeting notice and publication and/or posting of a preliminary agenda. See, e.g., RCW 35.23.221RCW 35A.12.160 for second-class cities and cities under the mayor-council plan of government, and RCW 36.32.080 for counties.

Special Meetings: RCW 42.30.080 does not address the need for an agenda for a special meeting. However, it does require that the notice for the special meeting must specify “the business to be transacted” and that it must be physically posted at the agency’s physical location and posted on the agency’s website not less than 24 hours before the meeting. While the notice is not the same as an agenda, it is important for the notice to have this level of detail to ensure compliance with the OMPA.

Posting the notice online is not required if the agency does not have a website, has no full-time equivalent employees, or does not employ a person whose responsibility includes maintaining the agency’s website. For more information, see our tip sheet Notice Requirements for Regular and Special Meetings.

Additionally, local governments may address how meeting agendas will be shared in their local rules of procedure. For example, Gig Harbor’s Council Guidelines & Procedures requires the agenda and meeting packet for city council meetings be posted to the city’s website “before 5:00 p.m. five calendar days before the meeting date.”

Can It Be Amended?

Since the only constant in life is change, rest assured that preliminary agendas for meetings can be amended. Many agencies have rules that include a process to submit proposed changes to a preliminary agenda before the meeting. If the proposed changes are not included in the preliminary agenda, those changes can be added during the meeting.

Remember that the agenda is only preliminary until approved by the governing body. Depending on an agency’s local rules, a preliminary agenda should be able to be amended as part of the approval process for the agenda at the beginning of the meeting.

Unless the agency’s governing body has adopted different rules of procedure, it may amend the agenda at any time during the meeting in order to add or remove an item. For example, an individual member could move to add something to the agenda, and that item would then be voted on by the other members of the governing body. Of course, the governing body must vote to approve any amendments made to the agenda at any time.

For two local examples, consider how Puyallup and Pierce County address amending a meeting agenda. Puyallup’s City Council Rules of Procedure allows items to be added to the agenda if is it 1) time sensitive and 2) approved by a majority of councilmembers. In contrast, Pierce County Rules of Procedure section 1.28.050(F) restricts what can be added to the following actions:

  • To refer an ordinance or resolution to committee.
  • To set or revise a date of public hearing.
  • To correct clerical errors.
  • To consider emergency ordinances, emergency or appointment resolutions, proclamations, or awards.
  • To authorize grant applications/awards.
  • To approve final settlements and/or appeals.
  • To consider motions that are not final action on any ordinance.

Special Meetings: The agenda of a special meeting can also be amended at any time, but a governing body may only take final action on items included in the notice of special meeting that was provided at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting itself (see RCW 42.30.080).

Additional Resources

Our popular, downloadable OPMA Practice Tips Guidance Sheets break down the OPMA’s many obligations into specific topics so that your agency can stay in compliance. Find checklists and best practices for:

  • Public meeting notice requirements,
  • Executive session procedures,
  • Electronic communications,
  • Developing and modifying public meeting agendas, and
  • Meeting minutes.

For additional questions, you can always Ask MRSC.

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.