Guideline-- Students contribute to new government ethics booklet

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

Earlier this year, Randall Brown, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys (MAMA), envisioned the creation of a pamphlet on the subject of ethics for municipal officials. The goal was to distribute the new publication to all municipal attorneys to assist them in providing efficient and high-quality legal services.

To that end, the governing board of MAMA named former Assistant General Counsel to the Michigan Municipal League, Sue Jeffers, to serve as organizer and editor for the new resource. Committee member Gerald Fisher, professor at Cooley Law School, was asked to recruit and supervise Cooley students to provide the legal research for the project.

Fisher, who teaches a variety of courses at Cooley, such as Property, Secured Transactions, Constitutional Law, Zoning and Land Use Law, and State and Local Government Law, says that, traditionally, the municipal lawyer was required to be well-versed in such issues as contracts, real estate, state and federal constitutional interpretations, eminent domain, and zoning.

"While these issues continue to be on the municipal radar screen, their complexity has broadened, and new subjects have been added to the municipal practitioner's daily diet," says Fisher.

Fisher cites environmental law, the Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act, tax increment financing, Headlee Amendment limitations, and medical marijuana as several of the areas of expertise that today's municipal attorney is expected to master.

"In addition, there is a subject relevant to all areas of the law that has become particularly important for municipal attorneys in advising municipal officials, namely local government ethics," says Fisher, whose experience includes serving as general counsel for cities, villages, and townships in Southeast Michigan before joining the Cooley faculty.

The research portion of the project had to be completed on the tight schedule established by the committee, so Fisher recruited six students to carry out the task: Brittani Baldwin, Jason Brown, Steven Elworth, Brandon Hagaman, Antonia Harbin, and Darius Robinson. Each student was assigned to study statutory material and report the relevant provisions with interpretive cases and Attorney General opinions.

"The six reported on conflicts of interest, disclosure requirements, impartiality requirements, improper use of position, incompatible offices/dual employment, nepotism, personal interests, political activity, public information, public property and personnel, and other criminal statutes related to ethics," explains Fisher.

The students met with Fisher one-on-one then submitted their individual results to Jeffers.

"These students were self-starters who, after initial conferences, needed only minor direction in producing their final products," says Fisher.

The committee reports that Jeffers did an excellent job of finalizing the substance of the ethics document, which turned out to be more comprehensive than the original "pamphlet" goal.

"The statutory material with case and A.G. interpretation was too extensive to be adequately covered in a pamphlet, so the committee determined that a loose-leaf binder format would be more conducive to updates and amendments," Fisher explains.

What has resulted from the efforts of the students and Jeffers is a comprehensive, color-coded volume that was assembled by the Michigan Municipal League in-house staff. This resource will be distributed throughout the state and will serve municipal attorneys in their offices and at public meetings.

With the completion of "Michigan Local Government Ethics: A Research Guide for Municipal Attorneys," the committee will now turn its attention to future projects that will address the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act. Such projects are excellent examples of how a law school can work with a voluntary bar association to produce a practical and useful product for attorneys in the field, according to Fisher.

Published: Mon, Nov 12, 2012

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