Q: What are the civil law duties of a city law director?
A: Ohio law authorizes the
office of a director of law for both cities and villages. The city
law director typically is paid a salary from
public funds. The term of office and duties are specified in local city
charters that differ from the state statute.
The law director represents
the municipality as its attorney, advises all municipal officers on issues of
law, and prepares all contracts and other legal instruments, including approval
of city council resolutions. Typically a city contract does not take effect
unless the law director approves and signs it.
The law director also may
bring suit in court to collect funds owed to the city, and will defend the city
anytime someone (including a former city employee) sues the city.
Q: What criminal court duties does the city law director have?
A: If the city operates a mayor’s court, the city law director or
the law director’s assistant serves as the prosecuting attorney.
In a municipal court or
county court with county-wide jurisdiction, the city law director of the county
seat may serve as municipal court prosecutor, even if the crime being
prosecuted originated in a separate city. The municipal court handles all
non-felony crimes, which most often are automobile offenses such as speeding
tickets or drunk-driving charges.
Q: Who is the city law director’s client?
A: While the law director advises all municipal employees and
officers, the “city,” as a corporate entity, is considered the lawyer’s “client.”
Rather than to simply follow the instructions of a mayor or city council, the law
director must exercise independent judgment in the best interests of the city as
Q: May the mayor or city council hire additional lawyers?
A: No. Only the law director has the authority to hire outside
counsel or additional lawyers and assistants as necessary, with funds
appropriated for the law director’s use from the city’s budget.
Q: What does the law director do if a city official violates the law?
A: Any person may ask the city law director to file for an
injunction in court, to prevent the city from misapplying funds, abusing the
corporate powers, or making an illegal contract. The city law director also can
file for a “writ of mandamus,” a court order used when a public official to fails
to properly perform the duties of his or her office.
Q: What if a city law
director refuses to file suit against a city official who is violating the law?
A: If the law director fails to act, then any city taxpayer,
after first sending a written request to the law director, may bring a “taxpayer’s
suit” on behalf of the city. If the
lawsuit is successful, the taxpayer may be able to recover any attorney fees.
Q: Must a city follow all state laws?
A: Ohio cities enjoy an Ohio Constitutional exception to
following state law known as “home rule.” This allows cities to enact local law to reflect city
preferences, where state law may be silent or different.
A typical exercise of home rule is
whether city government will be headed by a city manager or by an elected
mayor, a matter for local citizens to choose without affecting non-residents. For
instance, a city may create a domestic partner registry as long as the city
creates no obligation upon registrants, the law is administered only within the
city, and the law has no effect outside the city.
However, the city may not enact a
local preference if the state law on the subject is a general law or the state’s
exercise of a police power. For example,
a city may NOT change the election date for city voters for state or county
officials, however. Also, a city may not change the jurisdiction of state
courts, and it may not change utility laws relating to multi-jurisdictional
utilities such as gas lines or electric transmission
Q: Must the city law director give me access to public records if I ask
A: Ohio’s Public Record Law says that all public officials must
make all public records available within a reasonable time to any person
requesting the records. You do not need to put your request in writing, and you
may access such records, if your request is reasonable, simply by walking into
a public office and asking for them. Only records that the law expressly exempts
are not considered “public” records for purposes of public access.
As a practical matter, it
is more likely that a public records request will be filled in a timely and
complete way if you make your request in writing to the city law director. Then
the law director can advise the appropriate record-keeper and coordinate a
This “Law You Can Use” legal information article
was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Luther
L. Liggett, Jr., former Grandview Heights city attorney. Articles appearing in
this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the
law. Before applying this information to
a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney
Labels: city law director, municipal employees