In its second decision related to the Port of Vancouver’s lease of property for a new rail terminal facility to export petroleum products, 1 the Washington Supreme Court held that the Port appears to have violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, ch. 42.30 RCW (OPMA), in its discussion of the lease during five executive sessions held in 2013.

The case centers on RCW 42.30.110(1)(c), which permits public agencies to meet in executive session to “consider 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.” After considering the plain language of the statute, its legislative history, and the practical impacts of a narrow interpretation, the Court unanimously adopted a narrow reading of the statute:

Continue Reading Washington Supreme Court Holds That Executive Sessions On Real Estate Sales And Leases Must Be Focused On Minimum Price

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office has updated its online Open Government Resource Manual, available on the Attorney General’s Open Government web page here. The 2016 edition updates the 2015 manual and includes:

  • A new table of contents
  • Information about several 2016 statutes and court decisions

The Open Government Resource Manual describes the state’s Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act and includes summaries of and links to relevant statutes, court decisions, formal Attorney General Opinions, Public Records Act Model Rules and other materials.

Washington State’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) has new penalty provisions that take effect today. Previously, a person who knowingly violated the OPMA was subject to personal liability in the form of a $100 civil penalty. RCW 42.30.120. Under the legislature’s 2016 amendments, the penalty has increased to $500 for a first violation and $1000 for any subsequent violation.

The Washington State Office of the Attorney General has issued new guidance on the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), Chapter 42.30 RCW. The publication addresses frequently asked questions about boards, commissions, and other public agencies subject to the OPMA that appoint or hire persons for their agencies, such as filling a board vacancy or hiring an executive director.

Click here to view a copy of “Open Public Meetings Act Guidance On Frequently Asked Questions About Processes To Fill Vacant Positions By Public Agency Governing Boards (And Some Suggested Practice Tips)” (June 1, 2016).

The FAQ also refers to the 2016 amendments to the OPMA increasing civil penalties for knowing violations, effective June 9, 2016 (see FAQ Question #15).

In Citizens Alliance for Property Rights Legal Fund v. San Juan County (October 1, 2015), the Washington Supreme Court held that informal discussion groups are not “governing bodies” or “committees thereof” subject to the state’s open meetings laws. Prior to San Juan County updating its critical areas ordinances (CAO), a group of county council members, staff, and consultants met approximately 26 times to discuss implementing the CAO updates. Every aspect of the CAO Team was informal: the County Council did not formally create it; members were not formally appointed; and the Team had no formal purpose, no designated responsibilities, and no official relationship to other county departments. Further, the County’s governing body, the County Council, held approximately 100 different meetings, workshops, hearings, or joint hearings regarding the CAO update, all of which were presumably open to the public.

Nevertheless, Citizens Alliance sued to invalidate the ordinances, arguing the CAO Team improperly discussed the CAO update in meetings that did not comply with the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). The Court of Appeals ruled against Citizens. Citizens Alliance for Property Rights Legal Fund v. San Juan County, 181 Wn. App. 538 (2014). On further review, the Supreme Court also rejected Citizens’ arguments, emphasizing that the OPMA “does not extend to advisory committees and other entities that do nothing more than conduct internal discussions and provide advice or information to the governing body.” The Court then made a number of holdings clarifying the OPMA’s scope:

Continue Reading Open Meetings Laws Not Applicable To Informal Discussion Groups

The Washington Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), chapter 42.30 RCW, applies to a “governing body” as well as to a committee that “acts on behalf of” a governing body. The key definitions from the OPMA, at RCW 42.30.020, include as follows:

(1) “Public agency” means:

(a) Any state board, commission, committee, department, educational institution, or other state agency which is created by or pursuant to statute, other than courts and the legislature;

(b) Any county, city, school district, special purpose district, or other municipal corporation or political subdivision of the state of Washington;

(c) Any sub agency of a public agency which is created by or pursuant to statute, ordinance, or other legislative act, including but not limited to planning commissions, library or park boards, commissions, and agencies. . .

Continue Reading When is a Committee Not a Committee Under the OPMA?

Last Friday, February 22, was the first major deadline for legislation to stay under consideration in the Washington State Legislature this session. Bills had to pass out of policy committees by 5 p.m. (except for bills in the House fiscal committees and Senate Ways & Means and Transportation committees where the deadline is March 1).

The following bills are still alive following last Friday’s deadline. Some have been modified, while some remain in their original form.  The next important date for legislation is March 13, 2013, the last day for bills to be considered in their house of origin (full legislative calendar here).

SHB 1198: Training of Public Officials and Public Record Officers
This bill would require the Attorney General to develop and implement training programs for the Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act and requires members of governing bodies and elected officials (within 90 days of taking oath) and public records officers (at regular intervals) to complete the training courses.

Continue Reading 2013 Olympia Legislative Update – Open Government Bills Still Alive

In contrast to Washington law, the open-meetings provision of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does not define “meetings” that are subject to the Act’s requirements. Here, the Arkansas Supreme Court concludes that submitting a draft ordinance and a memorandum in support of that ordinance does not constitute a meeting subject to the FOIA’s requirements.

In McCutchen v. City of Fort Smith, City Administrator Kelly circulated a draft ordinance expanding his hiring-firing authority, a memorandum supporting the ordinance, and other documents to five of seven members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors in advance of a Board study session. Plaintiff McCutchen sued the City, alleging that Kelly violated the open-meetings provision of the FOIA by engaging in a series of private one-on-one meetings with Board members.

Continue Reading Arkansas FOIA: Soliciting Individual Board Approval Constitutes a Meeting, Providing Background Information Does Not

Arthur West, well known to those who follow open government issues in Washington State, had another of his lawsuits rebuffed by the Court of Appeals.  In an unpublished decision, Division II rejected his Public Records Act and Open Public Meeting Act claims against the Washington Public Ports Association. The Court also declined to decide whether or not the Association is a public agency for purposes of the Public Records Act.  While this case does not add much substantively to Washington’s open government jurisprudence, it does serve as a reminder that detailed facts are a plaintiff’s strongest ally in open government cases.  The Court of Appeals was unwilling to let the OPMA or case go forward because Mr. West’s allegations showed him to be a concerned citizen, but did not identify a specific injury.  Similarly, Mr. West did not document a specific Public Records Act issue, so the Court of Appeals allowed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the Ports Association to stand.  Contrast this scenario to many recent Washington Public Records Act cases where the appellate courts have been quite harsh with public agencies that fail to meet their duty to provide access to citizens.