Legislation to increase 45-year-old penalty from $100 to $500; enact $1,000 repeat violator penalty
OLYMPIA — Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced his proposed bipartisan legislation to increase transparency in government by enhancing penalties for violations of Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).
The OPMA requires that all meetings of multimember governing bodies of local and state public agencies be open and accessible to the public. Passed in 1971, the law was designed to ensure the public has ready information and access to the agencies established to serve them.
Ferguson’s proposal would modernize the out-of-date penalty provisions of the OPMA. The current penalty for violating the OPMA is $100, unchanged since the act was enacted in 1971. Ferguson’s request legislation would increase the penalty to $500 for a first-time violation, roughly in line with inflation. It would also enact a new $1,000 “repeat violator” penalty for a subsequent knowing violation of the act.
“Open government is vital to an informed democracy,” said Ferguson. “When the law requires an open meeting, yet officials knowingly close the door on the public, they must be held accountable with meaningful penalties.”
“It is essential that our elected officials understand and follow the Open Meetings Act,” said Hunt, chair of the House State Government Committee. “One should not be slapped on the wrist for knowingly violating the open meetings provisions. This law has been with us since 1971, and this bill, for the first time since approved by the Legislature, updates to 2016 levels the penalty for knowingly violating the Open Public Meetings Act.”
“To hold government accountable, we need to know what’s going on,” said Roach, chair of the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee. “No more secret meetings. Those officials who knowingly and repeatedly violate our open meeting laws should face a penalty painful enough to discourage them from ever doing so again.”
The OPMA requires open meetings of multimember, public-agency governing bodies such as city councils, county commissions, school boards, and many state boards. The OPMA currently authorizes a court to assess a $100 civil penalty against each member of a governing body who attends a meeting where action is knowingly taken in violation of the OPMA. The OPMA does not presently include enhanced penalties for repeat violations.
Members of the governing body are personally liable for violations and pay any penalties out of their own pockets. While the public agency does not pay the penalty, agencies do pay associated attorneys’ fees and costs.
Other states, including Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Rhode Island and Virginia, currently have higher penalties for open meetings violations than Washington. At least one state — New Jersey — has enhanced penalties for repeat violators.
Attorney General’s open government work
Enhancing government accountability and transparency is a top priority for Attorney General Ferguson.
In 2013, Ferguson established the Open Government Ombuds as a full-time position. In 2014, AGO agency-request legislation was signed into law, strengthening Washington’s open government laws by requiring training for public officials on the Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act.
The AGO provides training under the state’s Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act. More than 5,200 people have attended in-person trainings with the AGO Ombuds since 2014, and online AGO training videos have nearly 20,000 combined views.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov