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‘What’s that you’re saying?’ Councilman Wants Plain Language Requirement on O’Fallon Books

City manager says an ordinance could make things easier to block city efforts. Keith Riesberg says he prefers a plain language guideline.

Ward 2 Councilman Jim Pepper said wants O’Fallon’s ordinances to be clearer.

Pepper introduced a bill during the O’Fallon City Council meeting Thursday that would require the city to use plain language or define terms when drafting ordinances and other official documents. 

“A lot of our ordinances are vague,” Pepper said. "I think they should be more definitive and less subjective and opinion oriented."

During the meeting, he said if citizens are expected to obey the law, and ignorance is no excuse, then laws should be written to be “clear, concise and easy to understand."

However, City Administrator Keith Riesberg said requiring bills to be written in plain language could spell trouble for the city down the road.

“The concern staff has is that if you adopt it as an ordinance, it’s legally enforceable,” Riesberg said. “It makes it easy for someone who wants to hold up a project or challenge a council action legally. They can argue the terms used were not fully explained to a wide enough audience.”

“It removes the discretion from the council to make those decisions and gives it to the courts if somebody challenges it,” Riesberg said.

He gave the example of the use of chapter 100 financing, a complicated economic development incentive that requires that a lot of legal language be used.

“There’s usually a reason we use the terminology we do in an ordinance,” Riesberg said.

Pepper said the bill does not require legal language to be eliminated from a bill.

“You could just define the term and annotate it,” the councilman said.

Riesberg told the council he isn’t aware of any problems in which O’Fallon citizens, police officers or staff failed to understand city ordinances.

The city administrator said he’s not opposed to using plain language or making bills and ordinances as clear as possible. He said it should be used as a guideline, not a city ordinance.

Pepper also argued against making it a guideline.

“Guidelines can fade away or be ignored. An ordinance has to be enforced,” he said.

O’Fallon resident John Callahan spoke during public forum in favor of the ordinance.

“My concern is all the Latin phrases and other esoteric types of language,” Callahan said after the meeting. “The average citizen should be able to understand the law.”

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