Thursday, June 18, 2015

Research Q of the Week: 5 Tips for More Readable Ordinances (6/18/15)

Question: Do you have any tips for writing ordinances that don't make my head hurt?

Answer: Trying to understand a city ordinance should NOT require a dose of aspirin. To avoid causing your citizens headaches, follow these five tips for writing city ordinances:

1. State the city’s reasons and authority for the ordinance.
Don’t leave people guessing. Always state the city’s reasons and authority for adopting the ordinance and describe its purpose. Keep in mind that cities can only adopt ordinances on topics for which state law gives them express or implied authority to regulate.

2. Use clear language.
The goal of the ordinance is to let the people or businesses being regulated understand what actions are required or prohibited. Use short sentences with language that is easy to understand. For example, instead of using “prior to” use “before.” Define key terms. Separate different topics into different sections and use descriptive headings.

3. Preserve the city’s discretion.
Generally it’s best to avoid using mandatory language like must or shall when referring to the actions of city employees or officers because a city might be found legally responsible if its employees or officials fail to perform actions that the ordinance states are mandatory.

4. Seek legal review.
Have your city attorney review the proposed ordinance. A legal review is especially important if the ordinance might raise constitutional issues, such as an ordinance that regulates private property or speech. Paying an attorney to review a proposed ordinance will be less expensive than paying an attorney to defend against a lawsuit that could have been avoided.

5. Comply with procedural requirements.
Finally, comply with the procedural requirements for the ordinance’s adoption. State law establishes the procedural requirements for statutory cities and provides that ordinances must be: approved by a majority of all members of the council (except where a larger number is required by law); signed by the mayor and attested by the clerk; and published once in the official newspaper. Home rule charter cities should refer to their charters for the procedural requirements for adopting ordinances.

Written by Susan Naughton, research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1232.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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