June 2015 - Understanding League Legal Services

May We Help You? Understanding League Legal Services
By Claire Silverman, League Legal Counsel
Welcome, New Officials! The League’s legal department is here to assist you. This month’s legal comment describes the League’s legal department, the services we provide, and how to obtain those services.
It also explains what services the League’s attorneys cannot provide. Please note that our services, with the exception of the League’s publications and CD-ROM, are for our member cities and villages.
Legal Staff and Availability
The League has two attorneys on staff to assist you, Claire Silverman and Daniel Olson.
Telephone Inquiries
We try to have an attorney available to answer telephone inquiries daily between the hours of 9:00 A.M. and 4:45 p.m. You can reach us by calling the League at (608) 267-2380 or (800) 991-5502. We divide the day so that we each take calls but also have time to work on prior inquiries or written projects without interruption. Although I typically take calls in the morning and Daniel Olson takes calls in the afternoon, this schedule is frequently modified as a result of meetings, conferences, vacations and our written workload. If we are already on the phone or busy with other matters when you call, please leave a message. We make every effort to return calls the same day, although sometimes it’s not possible for us to do so.
It’s best if you can call in advance of when you need an answer. We get many last-minute calls from officials as they are heading out the door to that night’s meeting. We may need to do some quick research or look through our files to answer your question, and a little advance planning on your end will help us assist you more effectively.
Who may call?
We answer telephone inquiries from all municipal officials and employees who are calling about matters within their official responsibilities. In response to phone inquiries, we will provide verbal advice and mail or fax any existing written legal opinions, sample ordinances, articles and other relevant information that we have in our files. However, due to the volume of calls we receive, we cannot provide written answers to questions we receive over the telephone. League attorneys will only provide written advisory opinions when the request comes through the proper channels, as explained below under the sub-heading “Requests for Formal Advisory Opinion.”
Because we represent the League and the interests of its member municipalities, we do not typically take calls from private citizens and do not give advice on specific municipal law questions to private citizens. However, we recognize that many private citizens who call us have been directed to us by municipal officials. Thus, we will sometimes share articles that have been published in our magazine or other general information we have on hand with citizens who call us.
We do not consider our conversations with municipal officials or employees confidential. Municipal officials and employees must understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between League attorneys and municipal officials or employees that call seeking assistance. Our client is the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, acting through the League’s Board of Directors. If you request that our conversation be kept confidential, we will attempt to honor your request, but we will explain that we may be unable to do so. We will be unable to honor your request if a dispute later arises regarding what we told you or what we understood the facts relevant to your inquiry to be.
A municipal employee who takes issue with the way the municipality is proceeding or treating the employee will most likely be directed without comment to the appropriate state agency. League attorneys cannot advise an employee or official whose interests are adverse to the municipality because it is the municipality that is a League member and not the individual municipal employee or official.
Subject matter of inquiries
It’s best to call the League’s attorneys with general questions pertaining to municipal law. We are here as a resource for you. Sometimes we can save you time and effort by quickly directing you to a controlling statute or case. We can also give you a head start on your research by sharing information we have already gathered.
However, we prefer not to answer questions pertaining to fact-specific situations in your municipality. First of all, we do not represent individual communities and meeting your community’s legal needs is the responsibility and prerogative of your municipal attorney. Secondly, when a situation is specific to your community, we may not have all of the information necessary to answer the inquiry correctly and we may not know to ask the necessary questions.
We also request that you be candid with us when you call regarding a particular matter. If you have already asked the municipal attorney for an answer and either did not like the answer or believe the municipal attorney was incorrect in his or her answer, please tell us. This is very important. As stated earlier, it is the municipal attorney’s responsibility to represent the city or village and not ours. When push comes to shove, the municipal attorney will be the one in court representing the municipality. Although it may seem like there are so many laws that there should be one to concretely address every question that arises, each situation presents its own set of facts and unique facts add their own wrinkles. That’s why answers to legal questions frequently come dressed in gray rather than in black and white. In such situations, attorneys presented with the same facts and law can reasonably reach different conclusions. Moreover, it may be that your municipality has enacted an ordinance that governs the situation. The League’s attorneys would not necessarily be aware of that ordinance.
Finally, please recognize that we can only answer legal inquiries and are not in a position to advise regarding policy matters. For example, if your municipality is considering building an aquatic center and wants to know whether it can hold an advisory referendum on the issue, we can tell you whether an advisory referendum is permissible. We cannot tell you whether holding such a referendum is a good idea or a bad idea. If your municipality is installing sidewalks and wants to know what the various options are for paying for the sidewalks, we can explain the various options. However, we cannot advise you regarding which option makes the most sense for your community. Such matters are policy questions, rather than legal questions, and must be determined by the legislative body.
Letters, Faxes and E-Mail Inquiries.
The way League attorneys respond to any written inquiry depends largely on what type of information or response is sought. We will respond to written requests for information by sending articles, past opinions, legislative information, sample ordinances and other information that we have readily available. We will respond to a written request which seeks an opinion but which does not comply with the League’s policy governing requests for formal advisory opinions (see below) in one of two ways. We will either send a written response, declining to give a written opinion and suggesting that you call us if you are interested in discussing the matter, or call the sender if a telephone number is provided. We will address your inquiry by telephone if we are able to do so.
Requests for Formal Advisory Opinions
League attorneys can only issue formal written advisory opinions when the requests for an opinion are made in compliance with the policy formulated by the League’s Board of Directors. Requests for written opinions must be made in writing, and should come from the municipal attorney or by formal request from the governing body of a member municipality. The League attorneys cannot give formal advisory opinions to individual officials. We occasionally make exceptions to this policy if the question asked is uncontroversial, easily answered by reference to a specific statute or case and is of general interest to municipalities.
A request for a formal advisory opinion should fully state the question upon which an opinion is desired and should set forth the municipal attorney’s conclusion. The request should fully state the facts giving rise to the question presented and should set forth any statutory provisions, administrative codes, cases or ordinances that the municipal attorney or municipality is aware of and deems relevant.
Since we do not directly represent any individual city or village, we discourage questions that are fact specific or that involve issues unique to the requesting municipality. We are best able to answer general questions pertaining to municipal law which are of general interest to municipalities and which can be answered by reference to statutes and court opinions.
The time it takes us to answer written requests for formal legal opinions depends on the complexity of the question presented, the adequacy of the background information provided, and our workload and other priorities. If there is a specific deadline, please indicate what it is and we will do our best to meet it.
Legal Resources
League Opinions. We maintain copies of all formal advisory opinions rendered by the League. Each opinion is categorized according to topic (e.g., Contracts, Public Records, Taxation, Zoning) and assigned a specific number. New opinions and captions summarizing recently written opinions are available for a year on the League’s web site and over thirty-five years’ worth of League opinions are available on the League’s CD-ROM which is discussed below. Municipal officials and employees may call the League and request copies of any prior legal opinion using the general subject heading and number (e.g., Governing Bodies 250). If you are wondering whether we have ever written a legal opinion on a particular issue, please call and we will be happy to check our index for you.
League Publications
League publications contain information on topics of interest to municipal officials. Our monthly publication, the Municipality, typically includes a legal comment on a topic of concern to municipal officials, a column featuring “Frequently Asked Questions” and legal notes featuring recent cases of interest to municipal officials or recent opinions written by League attorneys. We also publish “captions” or summaries of all legal opinions and notes written during the prior month.
League Web Site
The League’s web site. www.lwm-info.org, contains useful legal information under the sub-heading “Legal Resources.” The captions and complete text of all League legal opinions, legal comments and legal notes written over the last year are available on our web site. We also have other resources such as sample ordinances. In particular, we invite you to take a look at the section containing “Legal Municipal FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions).” You’ll find a wealth of information there. All of the FAQs were reviewed and, as needed, revised in 2013 in order to ensure the material is current. Each FAQ was dated so you can tell when the FAQ was last reviewed or revised.
Legal Resources CD-ROM
The League has published a CD-ROM which is available for purchase. It contains the full text of all League legal opinions since 1980 and some opinions written as far back as 1975. It also contains an index summarizing the conclusions of all League legal opinions published by the League since the early 1960s and the following League manuals: The Powers and Duties of Wisconsin Mayors, The Conduct of Common Council Meetings, The Powers and Duties of Wisconsin Village Presidents, The Conduct of Village Board Meetings, Special Assessments in Wisconsin, Municipal Licensing and Regulation of Alcohol Beverages, Annexation of Territory to Wisconsin Cities and Villages, and the Handbook for Wisconsin Municipal Officials. All of the material on the CD is searchable using Folio Views.
For information on purchasing the League CD-ROM, contact Ray Bollhauer at American Legal Publishing (800) 445-5588 or e-mail Ray at rbollhauer@amlegal.com.
Amicus Briefs
The League’s legal staff seeks permission to file amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs in Wisconsin appellate court cases involving issues of importance to Wisconsin municipalities. We do not participate at the circuit court level because those decisions are not published and do not serve as precedent for other municipalities.
When deciding whether to file an amicus brief in a particular case, we consider the following factors:
The number of municipalities likely to be affected by the court’s decision; the significance of the legal issues presented, and particularly whether those issues involve (a) an interpretation of home rule or other municipal powers; (b) substantial financial impacts on Wisconsin cities and villages; and (c) substantial risk that existing law favorable to municipal interests will be adversely changed, or that new or developing law will develop in a manner inconsistent with the interests of municipalities.
We typically learn of important municipal appellate court cases from the municipalities that are involved in the case. A municipal attorney whose municipality is involved in an appellate case that the attorney believes warrants the League’s participation should send a letter explaining the issue involved, why he or she thinks it is appropriate for the League to participate as amicus, and a copy of the decision being appealed from.
Educating Local Officials
The legal staff writes, updates and revises most of the handbooks and manuals published by the League. We also organize the League’s annual Municipal Attorneys Institute and often participate in other educational workshops and seminars offered or sponsored by the League, such as the Local Government 101 (formerly the New Officials Workshop) and the UW-Extension Local Government Center’s WisLine series on “Current Issues Affecting Local Government Officials.”
Sample Ordinances
We frequently receive requests for model or sample ordinances. We have access to a variety of municipal code books, a treatise on municipal ordinances, and files full of sample ordinances relating to a variety of subjects. We also subscribe to a service that allows us to efficiently search a large number of online municipal codes . If you are searching for a sample ordinance on a particular topic, give us a call. We may be able to help you. Please bear in mind, however, that any samples we send are provided as examples. We do not represent that they are necessarily lawful or appropriate for your community. Any sample ordinance or policy which you get from us should be reviewed by your municipal attorney before it is adopted.
Because we frequently get requests for sample ordinances, we are interested in receiving copies of any new ordinances your community has adopted which you think might be of interest to other municipalities. We publish some ordinances on our web site www.lwm-info.org.
Sometimes we are asked how many municipalities have adopted certain types of ordinances. Unfortunately, we do not gather this type of statistical data and therefore are not able to accurately answer these types of questions.
The League’s attorneys are here to assist you and we look forward to serving you. I hope this legal comment helps you understand what services we offer, as well as some of our constraints and limitations, so that we can better assist you and your municipality.
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