Local Governments Exchange Ordinances On the Web

Need an ordinance on barking dogs or graffiti? Don't reinvent the wheel, exchange ordinances with other municipalities.

by / April 30, 1996
PROBLEM/SITUATION: Researching and writing new city ordinances can be time- consuming.
SOLUTION: A Web page with search engine provides examples of ordinances already enacted in municipalities.
VENDORS: Municipal Code Corp., Folio.
CONTACT: Lawton Langford, 904/576-3171.
The Municipal Code Corp.
Web page with ordinances can be found at

Do local ordinances ever define bamboo as a grass? And if so, does this mean it has to be kept below a certain height? When a resident of Newport News, Va., complained about the height of a neighbor's bamboo patch, Deputy City Attorney Len Ringler could have checked with other towns one at a time by phone to find examples of applicable ordinances.

Ordinarily, local government staff call other towns to see how they deal with an issue, then hope to get something faxed or mailed. "We usually call other attorneys and ask them to send us a copy," Ringler explained. "We're at their mercy to respond."

This time, however, Ringler did something different. He went straight to a World Wide Web page -- called Municode -- to see how other jurisdictions handled bamboo.

None of the more than 100 jurisdictions included on Municode defined it as a grass, Ringler said. The Web search saved him what could have been a laborious and fruitless effort.

Municode, a service by Tallahassee, Fla.-based Municipal Code Corp., provides links to a searchable ordinance database and has other features as well. In the first three months of operation, the company has received permission from over 120 municipalities to make their ordinances available.

"Now, at your fingertips, there are more than 100 codes," said Lawton Langford, president and CEO of Municipal Code Corp. "It eliminates telephone tag, and it has made city attorney offices more efficient."

A search engine, Folio Web Server, has been embedded in the files available through the Web page. This allows keyword searches with quick results.

Organizations of local government attorneys often write model ordinances to address issues, which can be altered for local standards and adopted by legislative bodies. But getting something which has been enacted and has withstood the test of scrutiny is to a local government's advantage, Langford said. "A live ordinance is better than a draft," he said.

Ringler concurred. If a neighboring town has "already done the work for us," he said, "then there is no sense reinventing the wheel."

The database is useful nationwide, Langford explained, because while state laws differ across the country, local governments generally have the same leeway within state and federal law to create their own ordinances. An example could be procedures for getting a building permit or zoning change, which are generally up to the local government regardless of what state it is in.

Cities of similar size, regardless of state, can often borrow ordinances from one another. A village may not want to deal with an issue the same way a large city would, but an applicable ordinance could be adopted from a town of similar size.

Ringler also used Municode to research ordinances related to people sleeping in public parks. He found a few, including one from Hemet, Calif. -- a town about the same size as Newport News -- to use in presenting options to the Newport News City Council.

In addition to assisting staff attorneys, the page can also facilitate public access to local codes. The Web page is a kind of middle ground between municipalities and residents looking for information on their governments. A city, for example, wouldn't have to take as many calls and photocopy pages for the public because persons could be referred to the Municode Web page.

One California town which put its ordinances on the Web was able to reassign three staff members from customer service, Langford said, because callers asking about local laws are redirected to the Internet.

Local governments which contribute codes to Municode, and which have Web pages themselves, are encouraged by Municipal Code Corp. to put a connecting link to local ordinances stored on the company's file server. This provides public access to the city's codes, as well as to ordinances in other jurisdictions.

Municipal Code Corp.'s main business is a codification service. It has done codes for over 2,500 municipalities in 48 states in its 45-year history. When city councils or boards of supervisors pass new ordinances, the text is sent to a company such as Municipal Code for "codification." Company attorneys research to ensure that the ordinance doesn't conflict with existing state law, the local charter and court decisions, among other things. The service is essentially administrative work which city attorney office lawyers don't have time to do themselves.

The company then publishes local government ordinances, which until recently were only available on paper. Municipal Code now gives customers several choices of how they would like to receive the product, including CD-ROM or Internet access.

The company doesn't profit directly by putting the codes online, Langford said. A key motivation for offering the codes for free is to react to the marketplace, he said. The publishing business is being pushed to provide electronic service. The company is expanding beyond its traditional print medium because many of its customers are already on the Web. "Local governments are a leader in embracing technology, and we want to be responsive to our clientele."

The Web page has other features, including a gateway to a municipal attorney listserv complete with an ordinance of the month. Early this year there were about 100 participants, and Langford said he expects the number to grow. To make the discourse more valuable to participants, he said the company tries to keep attorneys who may be preparing to challenge a city ordinance -- a local counsel's adversary -- off the service.

Municipal attorneys can use the listserv to communicate with colleagues in other jurisdictions. Enacted ordinances can be exchanged, and strategies for defending city actions in court can be collected.

But the ordinance database remains the headline attraction, and the value of the Web page to local governments will continue to grow as more jurisdictions put their ordinances online. "Jurisdictions see it as a way to get [ordinances] on the Web," said Langford. "It provides them with exposure."