Proposed laws and resolutions passed by local governments have traditionally been weighed down with legal jargon that makes little sense to the public, who often has to navigate around such words as “whereas,” “hereby,” “herewith,” and “thereby” in an attempt to understand what is actually being passed.
In an effort to make the documents less confusing, Oregon is looking at improving the language of proposed measures on their agendas to make them clearer and more transparent to the public.
Administrator Mike Beazley said communities across the country are drawing up their proposed ordinances “in plain language.”
“Other than for ceremonial ordinances or resolutions, it would eliminate the `whereas’s and replace it with the plain language summary and background. It’s something I want to do. Ultimately, it’s council’s call. Instead of poetry, we’d have prose,” said Beazley.
When the city buys a truck, for instance, the summary background would note why the purchase was needed, that there’s money in the budget to purchase the truck, and that the city received bids to purchase the truck “in a plain language system rather than `whereas, whereas, whereas,’” said Beazley.
“I think it’s a little more transparent to the public,” he added.
Beazley said he’s made the changes with two governments he’s worked for in the past.
“I’ve been involved in going to plain language. We found that it forces those who are preparing the legislation to think about it a little bit more, and have it in sentences and paragraphs as opposed to having a scattered `whereas’ approach which is not the way we talk or read in traditional practice. It’s a movement nationally to go to a more plain language. We can prepare some samples of that and present it at some future meetings, and let council decide if that’s a path you want to go down or not. That’s something I noticed when I came here,” said Beazley.
Council is also considering clarifying proposed ordinance titles “to make sure they are clear and provides sufficient information so a citizen reading the title has a clue,” added Beazley.
Council may also want to review when an ordinance should be passed under “emergency provisions.”
“We need something beyond boilerplate language,” said Beazley. “Council should provide better reasons other than `just because’ as to why council is considering a measure on an emergency basis.”
Proposals passed on emergency take effect immediately rather than the standard 30 days after passage. The drawback of passing laws on emergency is that there is not enough time for the public to learn about an issue before it becomes law.
“We hear that message loud and clear, and we’ll address that,” said Beazley.
“If council chooses to pass something as an emergency measure, the city has a legal requirement to be specific, to specify what that reason is, beyond the `preservation of public health, safety and welfare,” said Councilman Jerry Peach. “I think there’s a legal requirement to do so. Moreover, I think council wants to have, needs to have, real justification for passing something as an emergency measure. And also, it is certainly my preference, and the preference of other members of council, to avoid passing ordinances as emergencies whenever and wherever possible.”
Law Director Paul Goldberg said there is case law that states it is not sufficient to reason that laws must be passed on emergency to preserve the public health, safety and welfare.
“You have to be a little more specific than that. Generally, we do that with most emergencies. We try to put in another sentence or two that specifically explains what the emergency is. It’s not all that difficult,” said Goldberg. “I think the administration has tried over the last several years to look at all of this. Some things really don’t need to be emergencies. We need to be more diligent in looking at that: Does this really need to be done in 30 days, or if it’s done in 31 days is the city going to fall apart?”