By the Book: Municipal law expert offers local officials a handy guide

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Local government law isn’t exactly a spellbinding topic for most readers.

But noted local government law attorney Gerald Fisher wasn’t trying to appeal to the average book buyer when he decided to write a “Practical Guidebook for Public Officials on City Councils, Community Boards, and Planning Commissions,” specifically those serving municipalities in the United States.

That target audience numbers in the thousands in Michigan alone, considering that the Great Lakes State is divided into 83 counties and contains 1,773 municipalities consisting of cities, villages, and townships. Specifically, Michigan has 276 cities, 257 villages, and 1,240 townships. There are some 40,000 local governments throughout the country, according to Fisher, yet there are few alternative sources of information designed specifically for officials.

The numbers, in Fisher’s mind, added up to an important need to equip local officials with the tools and the knowhow to do an effective job in carrying out their elected and/or appointed duties.

In the introduction to his book, aptly titled “Local Government Law,” Fisher spelled out his underlying reason for publishing the handy 248-page guide.

“When local officials are elected or appointed to office, they usually arrive with significant practical experiences and common sense,” Fisher wrote. “Nevertheless, they certainly cannot be expected to bring with them a well-informed sense for ‘the law.’ The goal of this book is to provide basic, user-friendly explanations on some of the most fundamental principles of law regularly met by local public officials as they carry out their responsibilities.”

The chief aim, said Fisher, is to provide a “practical guide to bridge the gap between common sense and principles of local government law, to enhance the work of local officials on several levels.”

Additionally, “the materials included in several chapters of the book are intended to provide enhancement on a dimension that does not regularly appear on the radar screen,” according to Fisher.

“Namely, an important goal ... was to provide an opportunity for officials to enrich their enjoyment of local government work,” Fisher said. “Having a more complete picture of such things as land use regulation, local government finance, inter-governmental cooperation, the structure of local governments, and again, the ability to function knowledgeably with the maze of Robert’s Rules of Order, can open the door to pursuing stimulating avenues that may have otherwise seemed too uncharted to attempt.”

A longtime property and constitutional law professor at Cooley Law School before retiring three years ago, Fisher was previously a partner with Secrest Wardle, where he teamed with Bill Hampton, a former judge and state legislator, to build the firm’s Municipal Practice Group. He managed the Municipal Practice Group for 10 years, serving as general counsel for a number of cities, villages, and townships, and as a special counsel for various governmental entities throughout the state.

Upon retiring from active teaching at the law school in early 2019, Fisher began to ramp up his work on the book project, striving to help local public officials and “those doing business with them” become well versed in the basics of governmental law.

“My target audience is anyone serving in local government, along with developers, contractors, and realtors,” Fisher said, noting that “I’m hoping that it can be expanded beyond Michigan to reach a national audience.”

Fisher, a 1967 Michigan State grad who earned his juris doctor from the former Detroit College of Law and Master of Laws from Wayne State, taught property, secured transactions, zoning and land use, and constitutional law courses at Cooley. He also is a trustee emeritus of the Oakland County Bar Foundation, a nonprofit organization that he guided as president in 2008-09.

A 1963 graduate of Mumford High School in Detroit, Fisher was the 1978 recipient of the Roberts P. Hudson Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Bar of Michigan. The award signifies “unusual and extraordinary help and assistance to the Bar and the legal profession, which has been given generously, ungrudgingly, and in the spirit of self-sacrifice.” In 2001, Fisher was honored as a “Lawyer of the Year” by Michigan Lawyers Weekly.   

The book – published by New York-based Routledge– contains 14 chapters, including Just What Is a “Local Government?”; Open Meetings Requirement; Public Access to Government Records; Federal Constitutional Limits on Local Governments; Law-making Powers of Voters; Financing Local Government; Background and Importance of Zoning; Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings; Meet the Court System and Local Attorney; among other topics.

Fisher’s first foray into book writing has been well received by those in the know, including Richard Carlisle, president of Carlisle/Wortman Associates, one of premier professional planning companies in the state.

“Mr. Fisher’s experience, insight, and intellect is brilliantly displayed in the most comprehensive guidebook ever written for local governmental officials,” Carlisle wrote in a review of the book. “‘Local Governmental Law’ explains both the opportunities and pitfalls local officials face in today’s complicated environment. The guidebook is clearly written, well organized, and provides excellent examples of practical problems and solutions. Whether a newly elected or long-serving veteran, every local official would be wise to have a copy of Mr. Fisher’s book on their desk.”

In turn, the author gave a plug to his son, Martin, for his help with the book. An attorney, Martin “used his legal and other skills to provide assistance in many capacities leading to the completion of this book, including his editing, patience, humor, conceptualization, and critical analysis.”

The book is available by visiting www.routledge.com.

 

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