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May a council member attend a public meeting by telephone?

May a council member attend a public meeting by telephone?

(Open Public Meetings Act) Permanent link

The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) was adopted in 1971 and there is nothing in it that contemplates teleconferencing.  The likely reason is that teleconferencing really wasn’t common and may have been too expensive in 1971.  There is also no language in the OPMA to prohibit telephonic meetings.  It only generally requires that meetings of the governing body be properly noticed, open and public, and that all persons shall be permitted to attend. 

Several sections of the OPMA contemplate a physical location for public meetings.  See RCW 42.30.050 (Where a meeting is disrupted, the governing body may clear the “room” and reconvene at another “location”); RCW 42.30.070 (Emergency meeting “site” may be other than regular meeting site); RCW 42.30.075 (State agency meeting “place” shall be published in State register); RCW 42.30.080 (Special meeting notice shall specify time and “place”); RCW 42.30.090 (Governing body may adjourn to time and “place” in order . . . notice of the order shall be placed conspicuously on the “door of the place” where the meeting was held); RCW 42.30.110(2) (Presiding officer must state the reason for excluding the public from the meeting “place”).  In the case of Cathcart v. Anderson, 85 Wn.2d 102, 107 (1975), the state supreme court interpreted the purpose of the Open Public Meetings Act and stated: “We believe that the purpose of the Act is to allow the public to view the decision-making process at all stages.”

WA state’s OPMA was modeled after California’s Brown Act.  The Brown Act was amended to explicitly allow teleconferencing but it still requires notice of a meeting location that citizens may “physically” attend.  Washington state's OPMA was never amended to explicitly allow teleconferencing. 

Viewing meetings at a physical location may be a common sense way to interpret the public's right "to attend any meeting of the governing body".  RCW 42.30.030.  

However . . .

The OPMA defines a meeting as when "action is taken".  RCW 42.30.020(4).  Action is broadly defined and is the "transaction of the official business of a public agency by a governing body including but not limited to receipt of public testimony, deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations, and final actions."  RCW 42.30.020(3).

A meeting is NOT defined as only those meetings which are properly noticed and where a quorum of the governing body physically attend.  There is a good reason for the broad definition.  In the case of Wood v. Battle Ground School Dist., 107 Wn. App. 550 (2001), the court held that "if face to face contact of members of the legislative body were necessary for a meeting, the objective of the open meeting requirement could all too easily be evaded."  The term "meeting" has been construed broadly for the benefit of the public.  It includes telephone meetings, email meetings, and other uses of technology where a governing body may conduct the public's business.

Therefore, I conclude that a governing body may "attend" a meeting by teleconference so long as there is compliance with the other requirements of the OPMA.  Attendance does not require the contemporaneous physical presence of the members of the governing body.  While it may be good policy to require such physical attendance, the OPMA must be construed broadly to fulfill its purpose.

Posted by Open Government Ombudsman at 07/15/2009 02:47:11 PM 

DISCLAIMER: The "Unredacted" webpage and its content is not intended or offered to provide legal advice or legal representation by the Office of the Attorney General. The attorney general's office provides information, technical assistance, and training on the provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act pursuant to RCW 42.30.210 and provides information to records requestors and state and local agencies about "best practices" for complying with the Public Records Act consistent with the adoption of model rules pursuant to RCW 42.56.570. Send Feedback
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