Taking a gentle approach to the often-contentious annual legislative battle in Olympia over local government transparency, a broad bi-partisan coalition of 41 State House members have signed on as sponsors of a measure to require all but the smallest government bodies to post their regular meeting agendas online at least 24 hours in advance. With sponsors including Seattle Democrats and Eastern Washington Republicans, House Bill 2105 got its first hearing yesterday in the chamber’s Government Operations and Elections Committee. The state’s Open Public Records Act lays out rules and responsibilities for making and complying with public document and data requests. The companion Open Public Meetings Act among other things says governments “shall provide the time for holding regular meetings” as determined in its laws or rules, but has no actual requirement agendas be posted, or posted online.
Prime sponsor Brad Hawkins (R-12, Wenatchee) told the committee the proposed legislation was “a modest first step at updating the Open Public Meetings Act to reflect our online society.” The Act “only requires public agencies with governing bodies to issue notice” of meetings, “but it does not require them to post agendas. In the interest of transparency in government, posting agendas is a good practice.” A co-lead sponsor is State Rep. Steve Berguist (D-11, South Seattle/Tukwila/Renton).
Bill Will, the Executive Director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, also testified in support of HB 2105, saying that posting meeting agendas online is “a common courtesy, a lot of government agencies are already doing this, and if this is a gentle nudge in the direction for everyone to do it, I think it’s a good thing.”
Victoria Lincoln, representing the Association of Washington Cities, said she signed in as “neutral” on the bill, and wants to learn more about penalties for non-compliance, and what compliance would entail for staffers.
Included under the bill’s requirements would be city and county councils, school districts, a wide range of other local and regional government bodies, and “any state board, commission, department, education institution” that has a governing body. The proposed law would not erase the existing requirement under OPMA that such public bodies provide advance notice, separately, of their meeting dates, times and places.
As our own September 2012 resource guide to online meeting agendas in Washington showed, practices vary widely across the state. Some local and regional governments not only post their agendas online, but also include item-by-item links to the agenda items. This is the one part of a robust approach to voluntary online government transparency; another is providing current and historical key performance data in structured formats such as Excel and CSV.
Other government bodies in Washington don’t bake meeting document links directly into their online agendas but do augment them with bulky .pdf files of the whole meeting’s document packet. Others simply meet the intent of HB 2015 by posting an agenda online with no accompanying meeting packet online or embedded document links.
Another category of Washington governments have web sites but post no agendas; these are the ones who would be targeted for compliance under HB 2105, unless they met the bill’s exemption threshold of having full-time staffs of five or fewer employees. Governments with no web sites would be exempt.
One additional testifier at Tuesday’s committee hearing, Arthur West of Olympia, suggested that some small cities, school districts or other bodies which could have to comply under the new law might instead try to game the exemption by making technical adjustments to lower their FTE level to five or less, and that therefore some reasonable population level for affected jurisdictions, based on the latest U.S. Census data, should be substituted as a yardstick for granting exemptions.
In the legislature in recent years cities, led by the AWC, have voiced concerns and advanced bills to regulate what they see as sometimes burdensome public records requests; and have proposed some requesters be required to pay for related staff time, prompting sharp rebuttals from records requesters and their allies. Other disputes have arisen around proposed and adopted exemptions to the Public Records Act. Voluntary online disclosure hasn’t come up much as a legislative topic, until now.
The 2014 legislative calendar hasn’t been posted yet but typically in a session starting in January, bills must pass through their originating committee with a simple majority by the end of the third week in February in order to be eligible for further consideration and an eventual floor vote. For any bill to become law it must be passed by both the State House and the Senate. If differing versions of a bill are passed in each chamber, that can be resolved in various ways including in conference committee.
Video of testimony to the House Gov Ops Committee yesterday on HB 2105 is below via TVW.