With Revamped Code Website, Chicago Tackles ‘Ridiculous’ Municipal Problem

MaxyM / Shutterstock.com

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The Windy City’s efforts to digitally transform its laws and regulatory codes takes a big step forward.

In many state and municipal governments, the general public must pay to access legislation, laws and regulatory codes. That’s often because, as GovExec State & Local detailed last summer, many governments don’t actually host their own public information and instead have contracts with companies to host that information on proprietary information platforms.

Chicago has been one of a handful of municipal governments trying to change that and give the public easier access to public information.

“It’s a little known fact that many municipalities charge for access to the documents that set laws and policies. That’s beyond ridiculous,” Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza said in a statement.

On Wednesday, ChicagoCode.org, which had been in beta testing since November 2013, was officially re-released.

Since the beta site was released for public consumption, 45,000 people have accessed its information, according to the OpenGov Foundation, which worked with Mendoza’s office, the city of Chicago and its codification partner, American Legal Publishing, to execute the digital transformation of the city’s municipal code as part of The State Decoded project.

That project, spearheaded by the OpenGov Foundation, has helped a handful of state and local governments create more accessible code websites, including the cities of Baltimore and San Francisco and the states of Florida, Maryland and Virginia.

Chicago’s beta site averaged 200 unique visitors per day with, most weeks, a jump to 500 visitors when the Chicago City Council meets.

The site allows for the bulk downloading of municipal laws and uses links for legal definitions, so if “you don’t know which words have special definitions, and what those definitions are, then you can’t understand what a law really means,” according to the website.

The site, is home to, among many other things, information about landlord responsibilities about bedbug education for tenants. And if you hover over the word “shall,” you’ll discover the legal context of that seemingly simple word:

“shall” is used in connection with any time frame for completion by the mayor of any required process, such term shall be construed as merely directory rather than mandatory, and the mayor's failure to complete such required process within the stipulated time frame shall not result in any loss of jurisdiction by the mayor.

“Breaking down the barriers that stand between residents, their government and their law - that’s what ChicagoCode.org is built to do,” Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, said in a statement.

What’s next for the project? ChicagoCode.org’s open legal data framework could lead to the site hosting items like analysis of Chicago City Council legislation and regulations, court rulings and legal opinions.