[lg policy] Missouri: O'Fallon councilman wants laws to be plainly worded
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Tue Jun 14 20:39:27 UTC 2011
O'Fallon councilman wants laws to be plainly worded
Other officials would favor a policy over an ordinance
By Raymond Castile
An O'Fallon City Councilman is pushing to cut down legal jargon and
make laws easily understood. But city staff warns the move could give
ammunition to anyone trying to shoot down ordinances.
City Councilman Jim Pepper, Ward 2, has proposed a "plain language"
ordinance that would require laws and resolutions to be written using
language the average person could understand. Where legal jargon could
not be avoided, the law would include annotations explaining the
"It behooves the city to provide its residents with laws written so
they are completely understandable to the average citizen, without a
lot of legalese," Pepper said Monday.
Pepper said his proposal stemmed in part from his frustration with the
city's nuisance laws, which he said are too vague and subjective.
Pepper has proposed other legislation that would change the definition
"Since then, I have found other ordinances that are extremely vague,"
he said. "Parts of our city code are very ambiguous and conflicting."
Pepper said code enforcement officers too often have to make
subjective judgments as to whether property issues constitute law
Pepper said he is not suggesting the city revise ordinances already on
the books. Rather, the "plain language" requirement would be used in
amending ordinances over time, and guide the development of future
Pepper brought forward his plan during the June 9 City Council work
session. He cited examples of the federal government adopting plain
City Administrator Keith Riesberg said Pepper's examples pertained to
federal benefits and consumer contracts, not federal legislation.
Riesberg said he has seen no examples of plain language requirements
for local governments.
Riesberg said he agreed that policies and guidelines should be drafted
in such a way that citizens and city employees could understand them,
but he did not recommend adopting Pepper's plain language ordinance.
The proposal would establish mandatory writing standards for all
ordinances, resolutions, rules and regulations, Riesberg said.
Ordinances that failed to satisfy those standards could be rendered
invalid, he said.
"It would allow any reviewing court to void anything the council
approved," Riesberg said. "It gives people challenging the city
council another tool to use in trying to stop something from moving
Opponents of a particular project or development could argue that the
ordinances authorizing the project failed to meet the plain language
requirements, Riesberg said.
Riesberg said city staff had not received a great deal of feedback
from council members or residents indicating that city ordinances were
unclear. When questions have arisen about an ordinance's wording,
staff has been able to explain the reason behind the terminology.
Riesberg suggested adopting a plain language policy instead of an
ordinance. As a policy, the council would ultimately determine whether
a law met the plain language guidelines.
"If we adopt it as an ordinance, you transfer that decision-making to
the judicial branch," Riesberg said.
Pepper said Riesberg "blindsided" him with his objections during the
work session. Mayor Bill Hennessy said he did not think Pepper was
blindsided. Hennessy said Riesberg had expressed what had been staff's
position "from day one." Hennessy said he did not have a problem with
adopting a plain language policy, but did not think it should be an
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