City Law Director Works with the Public

​​​​Q: What are the civil law duties of a city law director?  
A: Ohio law authorizes the office of a director of law for both cities and villages. The city law director typically is paid a salary from public funds. The term of office and duties are specified in local city charters that differ from the state statute.

The law director represents the municipality as its attorney, advises all municipal officers on issues of law, and prepares all contracts and other legal instruments, including approval of city council resolutions. Typically, a city contract does not take effect unless the law director approves and signs it.
 
The law director also may bring suit in court to collect funds owed to the city, and will defend the city anytime someone (including a former city employee) sues the city.  

Q: What criminal court duties does the city law director have?
A: If the city operates a mayor’s court, the city law director or the law director’s assistant serves as the prosecuting attorney.

In a municipal court or county court with county-wide jurisdiction, the city law director of the county seat may serve as municipal court prosecutor, even if the crime being prosecuted originated in a separate city. The municipal court handles all non-felony crimes, which most often are automobile offenses such as speeding tickets or drunk-driving charges.

Q: Who is the city law director’s client?
A: While the law director advises all municipal employees and officers, the “city,” as a corporate entity, is considered the lawyer’s “client.” Rather than to simply follow the instructions of a mayor or city council, the law director must exercise independent judgment in the best interests of the city as client.

Q: May the mayor or city council hire additional lawyers?
A: Depending on the local city charter, typically only the law director has the authority to hire outside counsel or additional lawyers and assistants as necessary, with funds appropriated for the law director’s use from the city’s budget. 

Q: What does the law director do if a city official violates the law?
A: Any person may ask the city law director to file for an injunction in court, to prevent the city from misapplying funds, abusing the corporate powers, or making an illegal contract. The city law director also can file for a “writ of mandamus,” a court order used when a public official to fails to properly perform the duties of his or her office. 

Q: What if a city law director refuses to file suit against a city official who is violating the law?
A: If the law director fails to act, then any city taxpayer, after first sending a written request to the law director, may bring a “taxpayer’s suit” on behalf of the city.  If the lawsuit is successful, the taxpayer may be able to recover any attorney fees.  

Q: Must a city follow all state laws?
A: Ohio cities enjoy an Ohio Constitutional exception to following state law known as “home rule.” This allows cities to enact local law to reflect city preferences, where state law may be silent or different.  

A typical exercise of home rule is whether city government will be headed by a city manager or by an elected mayor, a matter for local citizens to choose without affecting non-residents. For instance, a city may create a domestic partner registry as long as the city creates no obligation upon registrants, the law is administered only within the city, and the law has no effect outside the city.

However, the city may not enact a local preference if the state law on the subject is a general law or the state’s exercise of a police power.  For example, a city may NOT change the election date for city voters for state or county officials. Also, a city may not change the jurisdiction of state courts, and it may not change utility laws relating to multi-jurisdictional utilities such as gas lines or electric transmission lines. 

Q: Must the city law director give me access to public records if I ask for them?
A: Ohio’s Public Record Law says that all public officials must make all public records available within a reasonable time to any person requesting the records. You do not need to put your request in writing, and you may access such records, if your request is reasonable, simply by walking into a public office and asking for them. Only records that the law expressly exempts are not considered “public” records for purposes of public access.
 
As a practical matter, it is more likely that a public records request will be filled in a timely and complete way if you make your request in writing to the city law director. Then the law director can advise the appropriate record-keeper and coordinate a timely response.

A new law now in effect allows any person who is denied public records to file a legal complaint at the local clerk of courts for $25. The case is mediated and decided on a fast track at the Ohio Court of Claims.

10/31/2016

This “Law You Can Use” legal information article was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Luther L. Liggett Jr., former Grandview Heights city attorney. 

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.

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