Andrew Richter doesn’t blame people for cracking open city codes as little as possible. Rare is the reader willing to slog through such material cover to cover.
“It’s the driest thing on earth,” said Richter. “It’s laborious. Pick your adjective, and that’s what it is.”
But nearly three years ago, Richter and a group of residents volunteered to help make Crystal’s ordinances easier to understand. By his count, they combed through thousands of regulations — nixing odd words, adding drawings for foggy zoning terms, pruning thorny passages and culling contradictions in city rules that no one even remembered existed.
Across the metro area, the battle against government gobbledygook is growing, thanks in part to national and state pushes for clear language. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 made it the law for federal agencies. Gov. Mark Dayton followed suit in 2014, issuing his own plain language executive order for Minnesota.
“There is momentum building,” said Susan Kleimann, chairwoman of the Center for Plain Language, a national nonprofit that promotes clear writing and issues an annual report card on how federal agencies are doing.
Proponents for plainspeak point to the link between public trust and how well the government communicates. Dissatisfaction with government, they say, often springs from muddy language in websites, forms and rule books.
“When government gets too confusing, people give up,” Kleimann said.
Clear information cuts down on time and money spent fielding confused phone calls or rejecting work that wasn’t done right the first time, Kleimann said.
Calls to Hennepin County’s elections division dropped after it overhauled its online instructions for absentee voting, said Brian Lieb, the county’s plain language coordinator. A simplified version of visiting policies for the county’s juvenile treatment center had a similar result.
“It’s about transparency,” Lieb said.
Hennepin County launched a plain language program in 2011, one of the first of its kind in the country. About 1,500 county staffers have been trained in how to write clearly and effectively. The program has snagged national recognition from groups like the Center for Plain Language and provided advice to local governments across the metro area and beyond.
“Minnesota is truly one of the national leaders” in plain language work, Lieb said.
Elsewhere in the Twin Cities, pushback against swollen sentences has taken many forms, whether in efforts to modernize the Minneapolis City Charter or slash newsletter legalese in places like Eden Prairie.
Staffs in Scott County and St. Louis Park anchored recent website redesigns in plain language. New Hope officials are keeping common terms and simplicity in mind as they work on a guide for property maintenance.
A user-friendly Crystal
But perhaps no Minnesota city has taken the movement to heart quite like Crystal, the west metro suburb of 23,000 where the City Council is reviewing hefty city code recommendations made by volunteers, chapter by chapter.
“We used to have as many ordinances as we had people,” Mayor Jim Adams said. “Now that’s been reduced and simplified, and it’s a much more user-friendly city because of it.”
When it comes to zoning, language disputes can land a city in court, according to the League of Minnesota Cities. Fights have bubbled up over undefined terms ranging from “lawn and garden center” to “accessory.” Definition sections can be helpful, as can a clear record of why the city adopted the ordinance, said Pamela Whitmore, a league staff attorney.
“Often when ordinances are challenged, the argument is that it’s unclear and ambiguous,” she said.
Soon after Crystal’s code review task force started its work in 2015, volunteers found it tough to pin down the history of some ordinances. Take, for instance, the rule that makes it “unlawful” to have a pool table within 500 feet of any public building; the city itself broke the law by putting a pool table in its community center.
“It’s the kind of housekeeping stuff that no one wants to do,” Council Member Jeff Kolb said. “But it is actually important because your laws don’t have any credibility if you don’t actually enforce them or don’t enforce them in any meaningful way.”
At its monthly meetings, the task force trimmed jargon, corrected errors and made the code’s layout easier to follow. They added pictures to the zoning code so that people know, for example, what the city means when it talks about the building height for a gable roof, Kolb said.
Of the original 14 members on the task force, about eight active volunteers remained when the work was finished last year — not a shabby attrition rate given the material involved, Kolb said.
A shot in the arm
The work has had its critics. Former Mayor ReNae Bowman questioned the price tag to “move periods and semicolons around in the code book.” So far, the city has spent about $69,000 in attorney’s fees to help with the code revisions, according to staffers.
Bowman said she favors tackling ordinance problems as they arise rather than overhauling all of them at once.
“I get cleaning it up,” she said, “but there are more pressing issues.”
But proponents say the money is well spent, that the work has spurred meaningful policy discussions and will save staff time down the road. It’s because of the task force that city leaders are considering changes to Crystal’s sidewalk snow removal policy in an effort to make it simpler and more uniform.
“When the council started acting on our recommendations, that was a shot in the arm,” said Richter, who was the task force chairman before moving from Crystal in 2016.
Most of the language warriors juggled the hours of code reading before each month’s meeting with jobs, said Bonnie Bolash, an acupuncturist who volunteered.
“We just read, read, read,” Bolash said. “Considering how dry the material was, we had good laughs.”