Codes of Ordinance: Does Your Municipality Need One?


Author:  Attorney John R. Orton

Every town, village, city and county has ordinances.  An “ordinance” is a written law adopted by a municipal governing authority, i.e., in Wisconsin a town board, a village board, a city council, or a county board.  Ordinances usually address things like public health and safety, land use and zoning, and government administration.  For example, municipalities often have ordinances governing the location of structures, the construction of buildings, the removal of snow, the licensing of pets, the control of nuisances, the installation of driveways, the parking of vehicles, and the operation of government.

Many municipalities have a “code of ordinances,” which is an organized, indexed, compilation (usually in book form) containing all the ordinances currently in effect in the municipality.  However, many small towns, villages and cities do not have a “code of ordinances,” but instead, they have a disorganized, random, pile of old records which contain the ordinances adopted by the municipality over the years.  To find an ordinance, these municipalities must often sort through years of records, page by page. Many times, these municipalities are missing important ordinances, and the only index to their records often resides in the far reaches of the clerk’s memory.  Staff turn over adds to the disorganization and confusion.

A municipal code of ordinances has many advantages and should be seriously considered by any municipality that does not currently have one, for the following reasons.  First, it provides an organized location for all current rules and regulations affecting the municipality.  This in turn provides citizens, municipal staff and third parties with one basic source for discerning the current rules and regulations of the municipality.  Without this organization, citizens, staff and developers waste precious time and money searching the historic record for the rules and regulations.  Moreover, without an organized code, municipal staff are forced to waste precious time responding to questions from citizens and developers who are simply trying to find and comply with applicable ordinances.

Second, a code of ordinances dramatically reduces the potential for mistakes.  A new clerk may not know about the 7th amendment to the zoning ordinance that has been amended 15 times.  Disorganization leads to unintended errors that can have devastating consequences for well-meaning citizens who give or receive the wrong information.

Third, a code of ordinances helps municipal staff efficiently and accurately perform their jobs. A good municipal code can help staff understand the duties of their job, and provide a roadmap for the performance of those duties.  For example, a code which explains how to handle a request for public records can ensure that the clerk responds to the request in a proper and timely fashion, in compliance with Wisconsin law, avoiding potential fines and litigation.  Furthermore, staff turnover can cause major problems for a small municipality. A good municipal code can help a new clerk wrap his/her arms around the duties of their new job, especially when there is no one available to train or mentor them.

If your community does not have a code of ordinances, it should be seriously considered.