If your local council, or any of its members, is negligent in fulfilling its oath of office, you can pursue legal action. Taking action against a local council starts with a complaint that can escalate to formal legal action if not resolved. Anyone working on the city council is subject to legal action.
If you experience impropriety or egregious actions from the council, document as much as you can with notes, pictures and copies of records before taking any action. Gather evidence and witness testimony to substantiate your claims, which can help resolve matters before they escalate.
Start with a Written Complaint
Making a formal, written complaint is the first process to any legal action against a local council. While state and local laws vary, there are three main types of complaints made through or against local councils: infraction, non-infraction and misconduct.
- Infraction. An infraction complaint is usually against another citizen, where you feel some city ordinance violation occurs. This is filed through the city council itself. If the complaint involves a member of the council, it may lead to a non-infraction complaint.
- Non-infraction. A non-infraction complaint is against the city council. These complaints occur if a city ordinance is deemed unfair or abusive. A non-infraction complaint also arises when a resident feels the city council did not take appropriate actions or took no action at all.
- Misconduct. Where the non-infraction complaint is against the council itself, a misconduct complaint is against a specific employee or elected council official. Misconduct complaints are filed by either residents or other city employees.
You can find complaint forms on city council websites or at city hall. There is no fee to file a complaint.
Beware of Statutes of Limitations
If a registered complaint doesn't yield swift action, take your next step quickly, because most states have a shorter statute of limitations for cases against the city. Be aware of these time frames in your state. A statute of limitations to file personal injury claims could be as short as 30 days. Other states have windows up to 120 days for claims. Know your deadlines.
Notice of Claim
The next step in legal action is not a lawsuit. Most states require filing a "Notice of Claim" first. Contact city hall and ask where to file this notice and what information is included in a valid claim. For example, notices in Florida are mailed to the Florida Department of Financial Services. Once the notice is filed, a waiting period begins before you can legitimately file a lawsuit. Waiting periods range from 30 to 120 days.
Visit your city or county attorney's office to obtain the correct forms. While some cities require only a signed, typed description with details of the infraction or injury, others have special forms to file a lawsuit. At this point, you are a claimant but not yet a plaintiff.
Filing a Lawsuit
If all previous actions have not resulted in an adequate response or settlement, file a lawsuit against the local council. Go to your appointed district court to get the forms for a petition.
State forms and fees vary; inquire with the clerk to obtain the correct forms and pay the required fees. Upon filing your petition, serve the local council members with a copy of the petition. The council then has the opportunity to respond and perhaps settle the case before it goes to a hearing. If no settlement occurs outside of court, a hearing is scheduled.
For complex infractions and litigation, consider consulting with an attorney to assist you.
- City of Oakland: Oakland City Attorney
- AllLaw: Suing a City, County, or State for Injury: Special Rules
- FindLaw: You Can Sue City Hall
- City of Farley, Iowa: City of Farley Complaint Policy
- AllLaw: After You File an Injury Claim With a Government Entity
- Independence, Iowa: Citizen Complaint/Resolution Procedures