Oklahoma Bar Journal
Municipal Law: Come Join Us Under the Big Top!
By Beth Anne Childs
At the end of the movie Argo, CIA operative Tony Mendez is told by his boss, Jack O’Donnell, that he will be receiving the Intelligence Star, one of the highest honors of the clandestine services. Tony requests to push receipt of the award off a week so his son can attend. Jack advises him that the award is classified, and no one can know about it. Tony’s response is, “So they are going to give me an award and then take it back.” Jack acknowledges that is the case and says, “If we’d wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.”
I have spent the better part of my 29-year career in public service, particularly representing municipalities. I frequently remind my elected and appointed officials that what they do is important, and if they want applause, they should join the circus. Although that analogy is not always well received, it drives home the point that public service should be performed not to receive accolades but to make decisions that advance their communities for the public good. Although to some, municipal governments can be viewed as a circus, it is far from a series of entertaining events. It is rather the level of government that most directly impacts its citizens on a daily basis. Elected and appointed officials are public servants and need to appreciate that the decisions they make are not always popular or easy and certainly may not result in a standing ovation.
THE MUNICIPAL ATTORNEY
An important part of any well-run municipality is the local government lawyer. In recent years, I have concentrated my practice on the representation of smaller municipalities. One evening, I had a gentlemen approach me following a board meeting, where the feasibility of hiring a police chief was discussed at length. He told me that hiring a police chief was very important to the town, and while he didn’t have much, he had worked hard for what he had. I have never forgotten what he said and frequently use his remarks as a reminder to work hard to help communities find solutions to their most important and challenging issues.
Most attorneys don’t fully appreciate that municipal law is highly specialized, requiring knowledge, information and experience in a vast number of areas. It is common for municipal attorneys to advise on matters involving public finance, land use, planning and zoning, eminent domain, torts, complex transactions, open meetings, open records, criminal, labor, employment, public trusts, purchasing, competitive bidding and constitutional interpretation and application. Municipal budgets are, more often than not, heavily dependent upon sales tax collections, a fairly volatile source of revenue. This creates budgetary constraints on cities and towns struggling to provide basic services like fire and police protection, water and sanitary sewer service and solid waste removal. Further complicating the problem is the attitude of elected officials who expect attorneys to represent their cities and towns either for free or at a greatly reduced rate as part of their civic duty. This perspective does a disservice to the attorneys and the city and town officials who fail to appreciate the complexity of the issues handled by local government practitioners, the time required to research and prepare municipal legal documents and the many nuances of the practice that can protect cities and towns from liability.
THE THREE RINGS
Support Your City or Town Attorney
In my experience, the average municipal attorney handles 33 different matters in any given week. Because of the diversity in practice, it can take numerous hours to get up to speed on a particular issue. The average reported law school debt of $160,0001 further complicates the ability of small cities and towns to recruit and retain attorneys. Also, the larger Oklahoma municipalities are playing a decreased role as a training ground for municipal attorneys who may be able to later serve smaller cities and towns. In the past, attorneys would gain experience in larger cities and then gravitate toward smaller municipalities. For a variety of reasons, there has been lower turnover in the larger offices. Increasingly, openings in entry-level positions are being filled with experienced attorneys, which, in turn, further reduces the pool of qualified municipal attorneys available to provide representation to smaller cities and towns.
Except for those attorneys who have stable practices, few can afford to represent cities and towns, keep up with the vast array of changes to laws affecting municipalities, learn all the different types of law associated with the representation of municipal clients and attend quality continuing legal education on topics of importance to local government lawyers. The politics, egos, negative press, diminishing qualified workforce and other challenges also make representing municipalities far less attractive.
Supporting your municipal attorney with words of wisdom, offering to conduct research on a particular issue and providing “heads-up” conversations in advance of public meetings all make a big difference and go a long way toward retaining quality municipal attorneys. I would encourage you to support your community by recognizing the difficulty and complexity of local government practice and offering to lend a hand when necessary.
There are many ways you can support your municipality. One of the biggest challenges I have noticed is the inability of city councils and boards of trustees to find qualified individuals to serve on their respective planning commissions and boards of adjustment. Municipalities cannot enforce their zoning codes without having active commissions and boards. In the smaller municipalities, these bodies meet once a month or less. Participation provides a tremendous benefit to your locality, and experience as an attorney can be invaluable to evaluation of the numerous types of issues decided.
Also, be an advocate for your community! Pay attention to job postings in your city or town, encourage good people to apply, watch for economic development opportunities and support the folks who pick up your trash, fix your water leaks and stand in the freezing cold to repair sanitary sewer lines. Rather than simply expressing frustration with local governments and their employees, commit to providing support and working to make things better. Shop locally and work to ensure that your tax dollars support your local government.
Representation of municipalities is challenging, rewarding and important. We are a very collegial, experienced group who tirelessly work to recruit and retain quality municipal practitioners. Those of us who have done this for many years will assist you with the resources you need to be successful. All you need is the commitment to learn and the desire to practice law for the public good.
In recent years, the Oklahoma Association of Municipal Attorneys (OAMA), the Oklahoma Municipal Assurance Group (OMAG) and the Oklahoma Municipal League (OML) have worked diligently to increase educational opportunities and provide additional support to local government attorneys. These organizations, as well as the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA), tirelessly work in support of the municipal attorney. The resources provided are enormously beneficial and additionally provide opportunities to collaborate on issues facing all municipalities.
Several years ago, I was sitting in a board meeting when an astonishingly large roach ran past me. Being raised in Alabama, I am adept in all manners of personal roach eradication and was prepared to use my high heel to rapidly address this situation. Fortunately for the roach, the successful bidder on the sanitary sewer lagoon mowing contract was much quicker than me. He leaped out of his chair, removed his hat, scooped up the roach and tossed it out the back door. It was a remarkable feat of quick thinking, physical agility and selflessness.
Over the years, my municipal law career has been defined by kangaroos, miniature horses, algae-eating grass carp, hospitals, falling walls, sewer backups and witnesses showing up to municipal court in all forms of attire, including (my personal favorite) SpongeBob SquarePants pajama pants, flip-flops and a very thin, grey shirt (no undergarments). While some might say my career has been – in a word – a circus, it has been much more than a series of entertaining events. More accurately and importantly, it has been rewarding, challenging and important. I am professionally fulfilled, grateful for the municipal attorneys who trained and supported me and hopeful that my one or two words of guidance over the years have made a difference for those serving in the circus of municipal government.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth Anne Childs represents the Oklahoma municipalities of Bristow, Wynona and Luther and is the city prosecutor for the cities of Owasso and Coweta. She has represented numerous other municipalities and serves on the Board of Directors for the International Municipal Lawyers Association and the Oklahoma Association of Municipal Attorneys.
- Student Debt: The Holistic Impact on Today’s Young Lawyer, published by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division in 2021
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 93 Vol 9 (November 2022)