When Is a Resignation by an Elected Official Effective?

We often receive questions regarding when the resignation of an elective official is effective. The basic issue is whether a resignation has to be accepted by the governing body of the agency for the resignation to be effective. Until 2002, the common law rule was that a resignation had to be accepted to be effective.  In 2002, the state court of appeals in State ex rel. Munroe v. Poulsbo, 109 Wn. App. 672 (2002), held that the common law rule no longer applied.

What happened in Poulsbo was that a city councilmember was challenged during a land use hearing about her eligibility to participate in the matter then before the council. The councilmember agreed there was a conflict of interest, but she not only abstained from participating on that particular issue, she also announced her resignation as a councilmember – effective immediately. However, after having a chance to reflect on this decision, the councilmember indicated the next day she had changed her mind and wanted to remain on the council. She submitted a formal letter attempting to withdraw her resignation. The council did not accept her resignation withdrawal and it filled the vacant position. The former councilmember sued on the grounds that her resignation was not effective, because she had withdrawn it prior to any formal action being taken by the council to accept it.

The court of appeals decided, based on RCW 42.12.010(2), that the resignation was effective immediately after it was announced. That statute provides that “A vacancy caused by resignation shall be deemed to occur upon the effective date of the resignation.”  The court concluded that the plain language of the statute says that a vacancy occurs upon the resignation’s effective date. So, no action on the part of the council was required to make the resignation effective.

Prior to this case, the rule in Washington had been that resignation was a two-step process – the announcement of the resignation was the first step and the acceptance of the resignation by the governing body was the second step. The resignation was not complete until the second step had occurred. Now, it is clear that no second step is required – just the announcement of a resignation that is meant to be effective immediately is enough to complete the resignation process. So be careful what you say in a heated moment about your intention to resign!

Resignation can also be made to be effective at some future date. However, the elected official may change his or her mind and withdraw the resignation at any point up to the time specified for the resignation to be effective. Once the specified time period for the resignation is reached, it is automatically effective without any further action being required by the governing body.

One other point that often comes up in regard to resignations is worth clarifying. We are frequently asked if a person who has announced their resignation from an elected office may vote on filling their own vacancy. The answer is no. This was the conclusion of the Office of the Attorney General in AGO 1978 No. 20. The reasoning is that there is no vacancy to fill until the resignation is effective. Once the resignation process is complete, then the person who resigned is no longer a member of the governing body and so may not vote on his or her own replacement. A governing body may start the process of filling the vacancy before the vacancy actually occurs – advertising for interested candidates, gathering background information, and so on – but no vote may be taken until the vacancy actually exists.

About Pat Mason

Pat is recognized throughout Washington State as a highly trusted resource on municipal law. He supervises MRSC’s legal consultant staff and regularly counsels local governments on public records, open public meetings, and just about any other municipal issue that comes up.
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