I’ve recently been asked about Washington’s open public meetings act, and how it affects email. I have attached a great article about it from Washington’s Municipal Research Center.
Even though council email is a recognized public record, an exchange of emails from a majority of council members can actually constitute an illegal non-public meeting. It’s not wrong to send an email to all council members….but it is wrong for a majority of council members to respond back using their reply-to-all function. Furthering this risk, emails can also get appended and forwarded, from one council member to another, which can inadvertantly create a “meeting” via an email daisy chain.
I’m solidly within the spirit and letter of the law with this blog, as long as I don’t have a majority of council members replying to my articles. I like this blog format because it keeps my thoughts and discussion out there for all the public to see, without citizens having to trek down to city hall to read email. But, as I promised at the start of the year, the email I do recieve is available for everyone to see.
Here is the article:
Municipal Research & Services Center
Ramsey Ramerman, Attorney
Foster Pepper, PLLC
Communicating with today’s technology is faster and easier than ever. But this ease poses new pitfalls for officials subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, 42.30 RCW (“OPMA” or the “Act”). Unless proper safeguards are in place, the careless use of emails, instant message, chat rooms, electronic bulletin boards and other electronic communications can lead to the unintended and unknowing violation of the OPMA. Accordingly, public entities subject to the Act should have rules and procedures in place to ensure that unintended violations do not occur.
The OPMA requires that all “meetings” of a “governing body” be open to the public unless expressly exempt. RCW 42.30.030. Most multimember bodies of public agencies will be subject to the statute. RCW 42.30.020(1)(b). A meeting occurs when a majority of the government body meets to take “action.” RCW 42.30.020(4). The term “action” is expansive and includes not only the transaction of official business, but also simple discussion about official business, and the taking of testimony about official business. Accordingly, the OPMA will usually apply when a majority of any board, commission or council gathers for any official purpose.
Under the plain language of the statute, as well as opinions from the Supreme Court, the Act does not apply if less than a majority meet.1 The Attorney General and Supreme Court have also recognized that the Act does not apply, even when a majority gather, if no “official business” — business that could come before the governing body for a vote2 — is conducted.3 But the Act is not limited to in-person gatherings — a conference call could also amount to a meeting.4
Conceptually, emails land in a gray area. Like letters, emails create their own record that is subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act, so they will already be exposed by the sunshine laws. For example, the Virginia Supreme Court held that an email exchange is like an exchange of letters, already subject to public disclosure, but not amounting to a “meeting.” 5 Unlike letters, however, the exchange of emails can be nearly instantaneous, allowing for a practically real-time exchange. For other forms of communication, like chat rooms and instant message, the exchange is instantaneous, and no “record” is necessarily kept.