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  • August 03, 2022

    Legal Research 101: Municipal Ordinances

    With hundreds of municipalities in Wisconsin, where do you start your research? Law Librarian Emily Gellings provides a list of resources and how to stay current in this vast and varied area of law.

    Emily Gellings

    downtown Green Bay

    Aug. 3, 2022 – About 600 municipalities are located within Wisconsin, each with its own local rules and ordinances. Ranging in size from villages of a population of 59 (Village of Big Falls in Waupaca County) to cities with a population over 592,000 (Milwaukee), the amount of information available from each municipality varies greatly.

    This article provides an overview of the resources available for researching municipal law in Wisconsin and more broadly.

    Wisconsin Statutes and Municipalities

    Wis. Stat. chapters 59 to 68 lay out the requirements, duties, and funding for municipalities within the state. Other chapters throughout the statutes also cover specific areas of municipal law such as chapter 32 (eminent domain), chapter 43 (libraries), chapter 213 (police and fire fighting), and chapter 287 (water reduction, recovery, and recycling).

    Specifically, Wis. Stat. section 66.0103(1) gives local municipalities the power to create local codes. Once a code is enacted, a copy of that code “shall be maintained and available for public inspection in the office of city, village, town or county clerk.”

    Finding Local Municipal Ordinances

    While many municipalities post their ordinances online, that is not always the case, and it may take some digging to locate specific ordinances.

    Emily Gellings Emily Gellings is a contract legal researcher. She is a past president and current secretary of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin (LLAW), a chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL).

    The Wisconsin State Law Library keeps a current list of online ordinances available on their website. Organized alphabetically by municipality, this list is the best starting point for locating Wisconsin ordinances.

    If you are looking for ordinances for a municipality that has not posted them online, the best starting point is to contact the local municipal clerk. Most city clerks will provide a way to view the ordinances in person, or will mail or email copies of specific ordinances.

    For historic versions of the ordinances, the local public library (see the list on, historical society (here’s a directory), or the Wisconsin State Historical Society are all helpful resources. The State Historical Society also provides the Wisconsin Municipal Records Schedule.

    Some of the larger municipalities in Wisconsin not only post their code of ordinances online, but also provide ways to track legislation online. For example, Madison, Milwaukee, Racine, and West Allis all have legislative information posted on Legistar. Here you can track municipal legislation through introduction to passage.

    Online Municipal Law Resources

    The League of Wisconsin Municipalities is a member-based organization with a wealth of resources for Wisconsin cities and villages. While some information is limited to members, there is a large amount of information available to the general public. This includes tracking of relevant legislation, sample ordinances, and legal opinions. The League also publishes handbooks on relevant topics that are available for purchase at a low cost.

    TheLibrary of Congress: Municipal Codes: A Beginner’s Guide is especially helpful if researching municipal codes outside of Wisconsin. There’s information on locating current municipal codes, as well as older municipal codes. This site also provides links to sample municipal codes.

    TheNational League of Cities is an organization made up of city, town, and village leaders throughout the U.S. Their resource library has over a thousand articles, webinars, reports, and guides available on topics of interest to municipalities of all sizes.

    General Municipal Treatises

    There are many useful secondary sources on municipal law to get started on your research. The titles include both primers for getting started in municipal research as well as in-depth resources for more advanced research.

    Antieau on Local Government Law – covers the principles of law for all types of local government. Available in print and on Lexis.

    Local Government Law – part of West’s Hornbook series, this serves as a good introduction to municipal law.

    Matthews Municipal Ordinances – resource for those involved in drafting and revising local ordinances. Available in print and on Westlaw.

    McQuillen’s Law of Municipal Corporations – in-depth treatise with coverage of all aspect of municipal law. Available in print and on Westlaw.

    Municipal Legal Forms, With Commentary – extensive library of annotated forms applicable to local governments. Available in print and on Westlaw.

    Ordinance Law Annotations – digest of cases relevant to interpreting and defending municipal ordinances. Available in print and on Westlaw.

    PINNACLE Books of Interest on Municipal Law

    State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE© publishes several titles of interest to those researching municipal law and related issues:

    Both of these titles are available in print and digitally through Books Unbound.

    In addition, PINNACLE offers ongoing CLE programs on the topic of municipal law. Check out Marketplace for the current list.

    Resources to Stay Current

    There are a variety of great resources online for staying up to date on issues that impact municipalities. Here are a few resources to start with to stay current in this area:

    If you prefer staying up to date via podcasts, the National League of Cities also just released a new podcast of CitiesSpeak.

    Where to Learn More

    If you have specific questions about researching municipal law, reach out to your local law librarian. Librarians can efficiently direct you to trusted legal practice materials. Reach out and ask your local law librarian for help with your research, or at these libraries:

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