Enforcing an Ordinance

Ordinances are a legal tool available for use by a municipality to help make its community one that people want to live in. Whether an ordinance is used to compel pet owners to use leashes or to encourage homeowners to keep their yards free from junk, an ordinance can be the best enforcement tool a municipality has. Ordinances encourage good community behavior and can even help prevent disputes amongst neighbors. However, an ordinance is only effective if there is the political will to enforce it.

In order to enact and enforce municipal rules, a number of steps need to be taken to make sure any alleged violators are given sufficient “due process.” First, a citation ordinance must be drafted giving the municipality authority to issue citations. Timeframes and processes in a citation ordinance must then be strictly followed. For citation enforcement to go smoothly, the citation ordinance must specify the following:

  1. Which individuals have authority to issue citations;
  2. The timeframe from notice of a potential violation to citation issuance;
  3. Information documenting the violation as required by the clerk when the citation is filed;
  4. The acceptable means of delivering the citation; and
  5. Defenses available to the recipient of the citation.

Second, the municipality must have an ordinance governing the unwanted behavior. There must be authority for the ordinance, and it cannot conflict with state or federal law. Ordinances must specify what constitutes a violation, how much time the violator has to remedy the situation and the amount of the forfeiture for the violation. In some cases, the state provides draft templates for ordinances which provide some assurance that an ordinance is valid. The state’s templates conform to the corresponding statutes that grant authority to write the ordinance and provide clear language that does not conflict with other state or federal laws. However, state templates can be lengthy and difficult to understand. The best practice is to consult with your municipal attorney whenever drafting an ordinance.

Third, the municipality should work within the relevant court system. Different municipal or county courts have their own requirements for filing. Specific court dates and filing fees for ordinance prosecutions are used in each court system. Collaborate with the clerk of the court to ensure that all ordinances are filed correctly and that ordinance forfeitures are in accordance with the municipal or county fee schedule.

If attempts to resolve the situation informally have been taken and the violation persists, it is time to issue a citation. The state has citation books available that are simple to use and acceptable in all Wisconsin courts. An individual authorized to do so should fill out the required portions of the citation and deliver it to the alleged violator as specified by the ordinance citation. Once the citation is issued and a copy sent to the clerk of court, the matter moves to the court for prosecution. The defendant may plead not guilty and request a trial, plead guilty and remit payment of the forfeiture(s) to the county, or fail to appear and be found guilty by the court in default. Each municipality needs to have an attorney to offer advice throughout the citation process and ultimately to prosecute the ordinance.

It is important to follow through in enforcing any citation issued. Individuals that have a tendency to ignore notices and warnings should not be allowed to ignore a citation. Without proper enforcement, the efforts to draft appropriate ordinances and issue citations are simply a bark with no bite.

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