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Municipal Ordinance Research: Search Tips

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Source: Drake Law Library (Photo by Elicia Ropte)

Finding Ordinances for a Jurisdiction

Some municipalities publish their own city code, while others contract with a code publishing company, such as those listed below.

Sharing Links to Ordinances

Use link generators and bookmarks when sharing rather than copying the link from the address bar at the top of the screen.

Once you've identified an ordinance that is relevant to your topic, it is tempting to share it with others by capturing the URL that appears in the address bar at the top of the browser screen. Be aware that these may be temporary URLs that stop working after a period of time. If you want to share a link to an ordinance, it is best to use the bookmarking or link generating feature provided by the code's publisher. These often appears as a link or bookmark symbol and can typically be found to the left or right of the chapter or section heading you are viewing.

Tips for Searching for Ordinances on Your Subject

If you want to find examples of ordinances on a subject regardless of jurisdiction, it is most efficient to use sources that allow you to search across multiple municipal codes simultaneously. Consider using the following strategies.

Brainstorm terms before you search.

Many topics can be described a number of ways, and not all jurisdictions will use the same terminology. Develop a list of relevant terms up front and continue to refine it as you continue your research. For example, if you are searching for ordinances on emissions, you might also want to include terms like carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases.

Look for newspaper coverage.

News articles can help identify local governments that are implementing ordinances on your topic. One way to identify articles is to run a Google search for the topic. You might find an article that addresses how and why a specific city/county council considered adopting an ordinance and whether there was pushback. From there, you can go directly to the local government's code and search for the codified version. This technique works best for unique topics that have been considered by few, if any, jurisdictions as they are more likely to generate news coverage.

Use Lexis, if you have access, to take advantage of its powerful search engine and to refine your terminology.

Consider using connectors to specify where terms should appear in relation to one another within the documents in your search result. The idea is that the closer together your terms appear, the more relevant the document is likely to be. If a document describes your topic in a way you hadn't considered before, incorporate that terminology into your search strategy.

Use the advanced search function within code publishing company websites.

Some municipal code publishers, such as American Legal, allow you to search across all of the codes they publish with a single search. The advanced search options typically include the ability to specify if you want to search for one or more words, all words, any words, etc. They may also provide a thesaurus option to automatically include synonyms, or permit stemming to search for variant endings of your terms (for example, if you type in recycle the system will also search for recycled or recycling).

Use Google's advanced search functionality to search across multiple codes from the same publisher.

Google's advanced search also permits you to specify if you want to search for one or more words, all words, any of the words, etc. But it also allows you to limit your search to a specific website or domain. Try this approach to search against all of the municipal codes available through a municipal code publisher's website when the publisher itself does not provide a way to do this. After you have entered your desired terms into the search boxes on the Google advanced search screen, enter the URL for the website you want to search in the "site or domain" box further down the page. Google will take the information you've entered into the boxes and will turn it into a search query that will look similar to the following: emissions OR carbon OR greenhouse site: All of the items in the search result should be part of the website that you specified in the "site or domain" search box.

If none of the above work, try a plain old Google search.

If the municipal code publisher doesn't provide a search feature within their site, and using the "site or domain" box through Google's advanced search screen doesn't work, try a general Google search. Along with terms that describe your subject, make sure to include terms like city code, municipal code, or ordinances to help focus your results. This approach will also identify ordinances from municipalities that publish their own codes rather than having one of the code publishers do it.

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