October 9, 2015

OPMA Decision: What Constitutes a Meeting?


Until now, the answer to the question–when are committees associated with governing bodies of public agencies subject to Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act?–has been less than clear. An October 1, 2015 En Banc opinion by the Washington State Supreme Court provides much-needed guidance on this question. By applying the analysis recently set forth in the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights Legal Fund v. San Juan County decision (No. 90500-2 En Banc), governing bodies and citizens can be more certain about whether the gathering of teams, committees, and groups affiliated with the governing bodies of public agencies require compliance with Washington’s Open Public Meeting Act (Chapter 42.30 RCW) (“OPMA”).


OPMA provides that all meetings of the governing bodies of public agency are to be open and public and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting of the governing body, with certain limited and explicit exceptions. This provision is of great value to all citizens, as it ensures that meetings of public governing bodies are generally to be advertised and open to the public on uniform and predicable terms.


The Washington State Supreme Court evaluated actions by an informal team of county officials and employees who occasionally gathered for the purpose of discussing the County’s work on critical area ordinances (CAO). The concern expressed by the complaining party, Citizens Alliance for Property Rights Legal Fund, was that the team failed to conduct its meetings in a manner required under the OPMA. The complaining party sought to invalidate the County’s resulting critical area ordinance on this basis.


The team at issue met approximately 26 times but kept no attendance records. It was unclear how the team was actually formed or how members of the team were chosen. While the team’s specific purpose and relationship to other county agencies, if any, was not clear, it was clear that team meetings never included a majority of Council members of the governmental entity (San Juan County).


The Court analyzed the OPMA and keyed in on the fact that the Act applies only to meetings of “governing bodies” – legislative entities such as the Council itself, and “committees thereof” when the committee “acts on behalf of the legislative entity, conducts hearings, or takes testimony or public comment.” See RCW 42.30.020(2). The court found that OPMA does not adequately define many key terms used. So the court evaluated and accepted definitions established in a 1986 Attorney General Opinion to rule in favor of San Juan County. See 1986 Att’y Gen. Op. No. 16.


In the context of Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act, application of the following definitions will assist in the determination of whether a team, committee or group is gathering in a manner that will render OPMA requirements applicable:


a meeting of a governing body occurs when a majority of its members gather with the collective intent of transacting the governing body’s business



A “committee thereof” of a given governing body is an entity that the governing body specifically created or specifically authorized


A “committee thereof” acts on behalf of a governing body when the committee exercises actual or de facto decision-making authority on behalf of the governing body


Because the team in the San Juan case did not meet the definition of a “committee” of the County Council; because the team never acted on behalf of the County Council; and because the team’s meetings did not constitute “meetings” of the County Council under the analytical framework applied by the Court, no violations of the Open Public Meetings Act had occurred. The Court therefore declined to invalidate the resulting critical area ordinance.

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