Code Talk

Meet Our: Codification Consultant

As Codification Consultant, Brooke communicates with customers and potential customers over the phone, by email and in person, helping them choose the best services for their needs. She also does web demos and attends municipal clerk/recorder conferences, where she talks to clients in person. Read More →

Meet Our: President

Our founder and president, Margaret Bustion, got her start as a Managing Editor with Book Publishing Company in Seattle. Margaret wanted to start a family, so she left Book Publishing, got her MBA while raising her two sons, and founded her own company in 1989. Read More →

RFP Process Muddled By Misconceptions And Inefficiency

For more than two months now, CodeTalk has covered topics related mostly to the editing side of the codification industry and the services Code Publishing offers to customers. Today’s post focuses on the sales side of the business.

Codification sales reps generally have two ways of making bids to potential customers. First, the tried-and-true method of cold calling and e-mailing, which establishes a more personal connection between sales people and customers. These calls go out to cities and counties regardless of how their code is currently maintained – either in-house or published through a professional codifier. The other method is to respond to a Request For Proposal, or RFP.

Code Publishing Company has responded to hundreds of RFPs over the years. Some customers send out an RFP every year, some every five years, and some just once. While almost all RFPs include similar basic criteria (cost, production schedule, credentials, etc.), no two are alike, as each one has specific instructions tailored to the needs of that potential customer.

Responding to RFPs can be time consuming, thanks to the variation in content. Depending on the size of the city or county and the scope of work, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to put together a high-quality, professional response.

Unlike the college application process, which has been streamlined, consolidated, and made simple for high school seniors, local government RFPs for codification are all over the place. It’s unclear why this is so, but here are two possible explanations:

  1. Outside of professional codifiers, nobody really knows what codification is. This is especially true of purchasing departments. In the past, some of the questions we have been requested to answer have had nothing to do with codification.
  2. Some RFPs seem to think codification is a Software as a Service (SAAS) project. It is not. Codification is about taking ordinances from local jurisdictions and putting them in a code. In the past, the codes were printed. Now, they are on the web. For some reason, jurisdictions equate the web with software.

While it’s true that a codifier uses software to produce the code, in most cases the web-based codes are static HTML/XML files updated as new ordinances are passed. A really good codifier will offer a myriad of bells and whistles for the online code, but it’s not the same thing as an executable deliverable the way Granicus, utility software or permitting software works. The “executable” software is installed on the customer’s network system and users will need to log in and activate the software, much as one uses Microsoft Word. Online codes do not use software which is executable.

Thought Experiment: What If America Adopted The Metric System?

All of our posts so far on CodeTalk have focused on real, tangible subjects. As such, our first blog post of 2016 is a fun, hypothetical thought experiment: what if the United States switched to the metric system? And, more specifically, what would the repercussions be in the codification industry?

The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t employ the metric system, instead using (for our purposes) inches, feet, yards, miles, etc. to measure length and distance. The fun part is converting from American customary units to metric. Officially, 1 inch = 2.54 centimeters, 1 foot = .3048 meters, 1 yard = .9144 meters, and 1 mile (5,280 feet) = 1.609344 kilometers.  Thanks to the Internet, converting on the fly is much easier than it used to be.

If overhauling the entire system was as simple as just punching numbers into an online calculator, then who would complain, right? Of course, it’s not that simple. A good way to illustrate this point is a standard zoning code. We’ve talked about them before, from construction to exclusive special features. A zoning code is chock-full of regulations, covering everything from building heights to how far awnings can extend over sidewalks. It doesn’t stop there. Here’s Table 18B.30.020-1 from the Pierce County (WA) Code, which covers sign dimensions:

Now, imagine having to change that table – and dozens of others – for thousands of zoning codes across the country. It would certainly be a lucrative endeavor for professional codifiers, because that means a lot of work for us. On the other hand, it’s also a lot of work. The windfall associated with overhauling the entire system could present major hurdles from a production standpoint. Imagine a handful of editors essentially re-writing hundreds of zoning codes, including converting all the measurements.

There are other complications to consider beyond the editing process. Here’s one scenario that would frequently arise: policy often dictates that renovations affecting a significant percentage of original structures be forced to adhere to updated regulations. In other words, excessive modifications to existing structures render the grandfather clause invalid.

You can see where this is headed: if a building was constructed under the old measurement system, then it would be cumbersome to implement metric units for remodels. This is where old versions of codes become especially vital. Of course, the good news is, we have those. As a codifier that prides itself on forward-thinking electronic features, one idea would be to develop an automatic conversion tool into online zoning codes. Instead of breaking out a calculator or referring to standalone chart, just click or hover over a hyperlink and, voila, metric.

These are just a couple of the challenges we’d face in a new metric world…err…country.

Legal Notice Requirement A Financial Drain On Local Governments

In case you missed it, print is dying. Not just in the codification industry (as we’ve previously discussed), but newspapers, magazines, and other publications are also slowly headed towards the big paper mill in the sky. However, there are still a few things physical newspapers are utilized for. One of those things is legal notices.

Once upon a time, in the pre-Internet days, states passed laws requiring cities and counties to publish summaries of new ordinances in a local newspaper of record. It was a time when the only way to view passed legislation was either access a physical copy of the city code or trudge on down to city hall. The summary publication statutes ensured that municipalities were notifying the public of all government activities, including hearings and meetings.

An example of this is Section 35A.12.160 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), which includes the following language:

Promptly after adoption, the text of each ordinance or a summary of the content of each ordinance shall be published at least once in the city’s official newspaper…

…a summary shall mean a brief description which succinctly describes the main points of the ordinance. Publication of the title of an ordinance authorizing the issuance of bonds, notes, or other evidences of indebtedness shall constitute publication of a summary of that ordinance. When the city publishes a summary, the publication shall include a statement that the full text of the ordinance will be mailed upon request.

These summaries aren’t exactly front page news. In fact, you’ve probably never noticed them because they’re buried in the classified ads under a section titled “Legal Notices.” To give you an idea of what these notices look like, here’s the summary of Ordinance 2528 passed by the city of Sumner (WA) in July 2015, as published in the Tacoma News Tribune:

Here’s a link to the online version of the summary (which is not required by the letter of that law, we might add). Well, a link to a Tribune page that sends you to another page where you can view the summary – after you type it into a search. That seems like a lot of work, right?

These summaries are treated like standard classified ads. In other words, they aren’t free, and can be quite costly. (If millennials won’t help keep newspapers afloat, then archaic, money-draining state laws will certainly help pick up a bit of the slack.) The combined cost of the print and online summaries of Ordinance 2528 set Sumner back roughly $70. And that’s for a small one.

To give you an idea of how much money these required summaries are costing cities, since April of 2011, Sumner has passed roughly nearly 200 ordinances. While most summaries fall in the $70-$120 range, they’ve gone as high as $350. If every ordinance summary cost a flat rate of $100, that translates to almost $20,000 spent in the last four-and-a-half years.

With city budgets getting tighter by the year, this amounts to a lot of unnecessary spending. Especially now that every city has a website and newspapers all have an online presence. The good news is newspaper publishers realize this wasteful spending. There’s even a searchable database of legal notices provided by participating newspapers across the country. This service is provided at no tax payer expense. But, despite such benevolence on the part of the newspaper industry, it’s still not an official record and the state laws remain on the books.

So, where does a codifier like Code Publishing fit into all this? We offer a service that falls in line with the spirit of the Washington law, and for a fraction of the cost. Every municipal code has an ordinance table. It’s tucked in the back of the code along with various other tables and appendices. The ordinance list is a great reference tool because it includes links to corresponding code sections, as well as a brief description of the subject of each ordinance.

However, our ordinance linking service goes one step further, as CPC hosts the original PDF files of the ordinances (as submitted by the city or county) and makes them available for download. Downloading an original ordinance with one click is certainly more efficient than waiting for a summary to appear in a newspaper or for full text of an ordinance to arrive via snail mail. Pierce County (WA) is one example of a large customer that utilizes ordinance linking.

Drone Legislation Sweeping The Nation As FAA Passes New Regulations

When we launched CodeTalk last month, one of our goals was to not only discuss topics related to the codification industry, but also identify and explore legislative trends. Two topics we discussed in our first week were e-cigarettes and recreational marijuana. As discussed in the marijuana post, the passage (overwhelmingly, we might add) of voter initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado in 2012 didn’t come without backlash. Numerous cities and counties in both states have passed moratoriums on growth, processing and sales of marijuana.

Code Publishing Company editors, who collectively handle thousands of ordinances per year, recognize these trends. And, as 2016 approaches, marijuana may take a back seat to recreational drone restrictions, as the controversial machines are poised to be the hot button issue of the new year.

Currently, only a handful of Code Publishing customers have specific restrictions on the books. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 8.60 of the Santa Clara Municipal Code, which bans drones from flying over or near large gatherings and sporting events, including Levi’s Stadium:

…the City is mandating a “no-fly” restriction at all times by unmanned aircraft systems within one-half mile around and over Levi’s® Stadium, over Santa Clara University sports facilities when they are in use, and over large venue special events in public parks and public facilities that will attract large groups of people.

Safety is one of the top concerns regarding unmanned aircraft, and not only in the case of a crashed or weaponized device. Recent interference with emergency services led to Poway (CA) to ban drones during emergency situations. Last summer, drones hindered firefighters’ response to devastating wildfires in California, as aerial firefighting crews couldn’t deliver their payloads as drones hovered over drop points. Thus, Poway approved Ordinance 780(warning: .PDF), banning drone use during emergencies – including wildfires – in which aerial support could be present. The new law, which extends two miles outside the city limits, goes into effect this month.

Another concern over drones is privacy. Drones are capable of capturing breathtaking footage, and all it takes is a simple GoPro camera attachment. Unfortunately, it’s possible to use them for nefarious purposes, by both law enforcement and recreational users. In 2013, Pierce County (WA) added drones to its unwarranted surveillance policy, banning the use of them unless authorized through proper channels.

In the last few years, all but three states have either passed or have pending legislation regulating drones in some capacity. This map is a good resource for reading all existing and pending legislation. In addition to privacy laws, the FAA announced on Monday its drone registry policy. That’s right, if Santa delivers a drone for Christmas, you’ll have to register it with Uncle Sam. Registration is required on all unmanned aerial vehicles weighing between 250 grams and 55 pounds. Failure to comply carries a fine between $27,500 and $250,000.

How Tables Can Make or Break a Zoning Code

Last week’s blog entry on zoning code construction included multiple graphics illustrating the difference between static and scrolling table headers. Scrolling headers make online codes much easier to use because it eliminates the need to scroll up to reference the headers for a single (or multiple) columns. Scrolling headers is one of our most popular advanced features, yet underutilized in the codification industry. Read More →