Note: This page covers information specific to Washington. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
Washington's Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level in Washington. Washington law also gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes and imposes notice requirements on government agencies. You should consult the Washington Attorney General's Open Government Internet Manual: Chapter 3 and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: Washington for additional information on the OPMA. For detailed information about how the OPMA applies at the local level, see the Municipal Research and Services Center's The Open Public Meetings Act: How it Applies to Washington Cities and Counties.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The OPMA requires that meetings of "the governing body of a public agency" be open to the public. Wash. Rev. Code § 42.30.030. This covers multi-member bodies that govern state and local government agencies. At the state level, it includes boards and commissions, such as the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, the Washington State Transportation Commission, and the Public Employees' Retirement Board. At the local level, it applies to groups like boards of county commissioners, city councils, school boards, public utility district boards, planning commissions, civil service commissions, and boards of adjustment. It also applies to committees created by one of these governing bodies, if the committee acts on behalf of the governing body, conducts hearings, or takes testimony or public comment.
On the other hand, state and local agencies governed by individuals are not subject to the open meetings requirement. Some examples of individual-headed agencies include the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, the Washington Department of Licensing, the Department of Social and Health Services, the Washington State Patrol, and the Washington State Department of Employment Security.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the OPMA, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute a "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). Under Washington law, a "meeting" takes place whenever a majority of a governing body's members congregate to deal in any way with their official business. This includes simply discussing some matter having to do with official business, taking public testimony, engaging in deliberations, reviews, or evaluations, and taking collective action on a motion, proposal, resolution, order, or ordinance. A "meeting" would not include purely social and ceremonial gatherings, nor would it likely apply to an academic conference or similar event that a majority of members happened to attend.
The OPMA can apply to email and/or telephonic communications between a majority of the members of a governing body depending on the circumstances. For instance, an exchange of emails constitutes a meeting if a majority of members "collectively intend to meet [by email] to transact the governing body's official business" and "communicate about issues that may or will come before [them] for a vote." Wood v. Battle Ground School District, 107 Wash. App. 550 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001). Members do not engage in a meeting simply by receiving information by email or telephone about upcoming issues.
What Are Your Rights?
The OPMA gives "all persons" the right to attend the meetings of governing bodies of public agencies, with exceptions for closed sessions discussed below. Washington law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend. A governing body may not impose conditions on attendance, such as requiring you to register or complete a questionnaire. See Wash. Rev. Code § 42.30.040.
The OPMA does not give the public a right to participate or comment during open meetings, but as a matter of practice the public sometimes participates in meetings. The governing body has authority to limit the time of speakers to a uniform amount or to not allow anyone to speak.
Washington has unusual and relatively weak notice requirements. The OPMA requires the governing bodies of public agencies to set a schedule of "regular meetings" by ordinance, resolution, bylaw, or other formal measure. A "regular meeting" is defined as a "recurring meeting held in accordance with a periodic schedule declared by statute or rule." Wash. Rev. Code § 42.30.075. State agencies must publish this schedule in January of every year in the Washington State Register, and they must publish notice at least twenty days in advance in the State Register if they change the schedule. Otherwise, there are no notice requirements for regular meetings, and governing bodies of state and local agencies need not provide the public with an agenda or other description of the items of business to be discussed at regular meetings.
A governing body may call a "special meeting" -- i.e., a meeting not scheduled by ordinance, resolution, bylaw, or other formal measure. In that event, the governing body must give written notice at least twenty-four hours in advance to the members of the governing body and to "each local newspaper of general circulation and to each local radio or television station which has on file with the governing body a written request to be notified of such special meeting or of all special meetings." Wash. Rev. Code § 42.30.080. Whether this provision entitles online and other non-traditional news publishers to request notice is not clear, but you may want to make a request for notice anyway. An agency will have little incentive to deny this simple request and potentially spark a lawsuit. If the governing body accepts your request, you should renew it every year to ensure that you continue to receive notice. The notice for special meetings, which can be delivered by mail, fax or email, must give the time and place of the meeting and a description of "the business to be transacted."
Minutes and Recordings
Governing bodies of public agencies must record minutes of their meetings and make them available to the public upon request. See Wash. Rev. Code § 42.32.030. Some agencies make audio recordings of their meetings. If they choose to do so, the recording is a public record that you can access just like ordinary minutes.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see Washington Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all meetings of governing bodies of public agencies must be open to the public. If a governing body wants to hold a closed session, called an "executive session," it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under the OPMA, a governing body may hold an executive session when it is dealing with one of thirteen subject-area exemptions found in Wash. Rev. Code § 42.30.110. The thirteen exemptions are for meetings dealing with the following topics:
- matters affecting national security;
- the selection of a site or the acquisition of real estate by lease or purchase when public knowledge regarding such consideration would cause a likelihood of increased price;
- the minimum price at which real estate will be offered for sale or lease when public knowledge regarding such consideration would cause a likelihood of decreased price;
- negotiations on the performance of publicly bid contracts when public knowledge regarding such consideration would cause a likelihood of increased costs;
- financial and commercial information supplied by private persons to an export trading company;
- complaints or charges brought against a public officer or employee, unless that officer or employee requests a public hearing;
- the qualifications of an applicant for public employment or to review the performance of a public employee, but final actions must be taken at a public meeting;
- the qualifications of a candidate for appointment to elective office, but any interview of the candidate and final action appointing a candidate to elective office must be carried out at public meeting;
- discussion with legal counsel relating to agency enforcement actions or pending or potential litigation;
- in the case of the state library commission or its advisory bodies, library network prices, products, equipment, and services, when such discussion would be likely to adversely affect the network's ability to conduct business in a competitive economic climate, but final action must be taken at a public meeting;
- in the case of the state investment board, financial and commercial information when the information relates to the investment of public trust or retirement funds and when public knowledge regarding the discussion would result in loss to such funds or in private loss to the providers of this information;
- proprietary or confidential nonpublished information related to the development, acquisition, or implementation of state purchased health care services; and
- in the case of the life sciences discovery fund authority, the substance of grant applications and grant awards when public knowledge regarding the discussion would reasonably be expected to result in private loss to the providers of this information.
These exemptions make it permissible for a governing body to close a portion of a meeting; they do not require it to do so. If a governing body is dealing with one of these enumerated subject areas, then it may hold a close session, but it also must meet the following procedural requirements:
- The governing body must hold the executive session as part of a regular or special meeting.
- Prior to convening the executive session, the presiding officer of the governing body must publicly announce the purpose of excluding the public from the meeting place and the time when the executive session will end.
A governing body need not make available the minutes or recording of an executive session. For more information on the exemptions to the open meetings requirement, see the Open Government Guide: Washington.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
If you believe that a governing body of a public agency has violated your rights, you may sue in state court. Under Washington law, any person may file a lawsuit for violations of the OPMA. If you succeed in a lawsuit, you can obtain a court order requiring that a meeting or meetings be made open to the public in the future, that a governing body satisfy its notice obligations, or that it provide access to minutes improperly withheld. In addition, if you go to court and win, the losing agency generally will have to pay your attorneys' fees and costs.
In the event that you are denied access to a meeting or class of meetings, you probably want to pursue an informal resolution before filing a lawsuit, which ordinarily is a costly and slow solution. You should contact the governing body in question and inform it that you believe your rights have been violated and that you are willing to bring a legal action. You should submit your complaint in writing whenever possible. If the governing body continues to deny your request for access, you should consider filing a lawsuit. There may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation.