Health Law & Policy Institute
Did you know that it is unlawful for any person to drive, hit, or otherwise play golf in any city park or upon any municipally owned grounds in Pearland, Texas, except in areas clearly designated for that purpose? See § 20-3, Playing golf prohibited in certain areas at http://www.municode.com or http://www.ci.pearland.tx.us. The adage that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” expresses correctly the legal rule that one is presumed to know the law, and it is not generally a defense to be unaware of a law’s requirements. However, in the case of municipal ordinances, it is maddeningly difficult to determine what the law is.
Municipal ordinances play an important role in public health regulation. For example, some Texas cities have ordinances that stringently regulate exposure to environmental tobacco smoke, requiring smokefree restaurants, day care centers, and worksites. Texas state law does not address smoking in restaurants, day care centers or places of employment. So in Texas, municipal ordinances have been effective for local policy development where tobacco industry opposition is least effective. The Health Law & Policy Institute recently conducted a study requiring us to obtain city ordinances regulating the sale or use of tobacco. A total of 201 municipalities were surveyed. Generally, the city secretary or their staff was contacted. If the city secretary determined that there was an ordinance for that city, they were requested to fax, e-mail, or mail a copy to the Institute. Sixteen cities in the survey were unreachable or did not respond to our requests for information. Several of the cities required us to file a formal “open government records” request, and many cities charged a fee for providing a copy of the ordinance.
Some enlightened cities including Pearland above do publish their ordinances online either at the city’s web site or at municode.com. The municode.com site allows cities throughout the U.S. to post their ordinances, and allows users to access the ordinances either through a table of contents or via a search engine. However, only a fraction of cities have made their ordinances available via the Internet.
The Texas Legislature has passed a number of laws requiring that various types of public information be made available on the Internet. See, e.g., Extensive Texas Physician Profiles Will Soon Be Available to Public at Internet/990720Extensive.html. The Texas Government Code requires several governmental bodies to make extensive information available to the public via the Internet. But there is no requirement that cities publish their ordinances online.
Perhaps we should amend Texas state law to require that city ordinances be web-published before they can be legally enforced. The state could make a central municipal ordinance website available, and assist smaller cities in uploading their laws to the site. Citizens surely have a right to know the laws they are supposed to comply with, and publishing the ordinances online would be a boon to researchers examining important public policy issues.