When we imagine laws and when talk about them, most of us probably don’t picture the paper they’re written on or the specific words used in them.
But most cities have an actual book of laws. A lot of words in the City of Miami’s version of that book refer to men. Thursday, the city is considering a measure that would replace those words with gender-neutral substitutes and print a whole new code book.
At about half a foot tall, 1,900 pages and 62 chapters, the green canvas-bound boulder of a tome officially known as the City of Miami Charter and Code is less of a book and more of a binder full of… laws.
“You have tabs here that allow this binder to basically pop up,” explains Todd Hannon, City of Miami clerk and the guardian of the code book.
Laws change, so every three months or so he has to physically remove the old versions of the law and replace them with new pages that are up to date. Since the last full printing of the code book, there have been roughly 63 installments of these supplement pages. Each of these has forced a loosening of the belt on the code book, to the point where it doesn’t have much more room to expand.
One thing you won’t find in that code book: ordinance number 1.
This was approved three decades after Julia Tuttle moved to what became -- largely because of her -- the City of Miami.
That very first ordinance is no longer in the code book; commissioners’ base salary has gone from $1 to $58,200.
But Miami’s brick of laws still reflects an older attitude about other things.
“I was reading the code one day, specifically the code section that outlines the powers and duties of the city attorney,” said Leah Weston, policy director for Miami Commissioner Ken Russell. “And I noticed that all of the pronouns used in that section were male and I found this kind of crazy because our city attorney is a woman. She's the only woman who sits up on that dais because the entire commission is male.”
She mentioned it to some people in the attorney's office and figured it would actually be pretty easy to change that.
The ordinance Russell is now sponsoring would replace words like policeman and fireman with police officer and firefighter
“At the end of the day it's 2017 and this should be really simple,” said Russell.
Simple, but could have real impact on the way we read the laws and how we think about the people in various positions, says Russell. The city attorney doesn’t have to be a man and she isn’t.
“Ironically when I asked for this legislation, in the first draft that came back the title of the legislation had gender reference in it,” said Russell with a laugh. “Basically, the idea was that it was erasing male references but it shouldn't have been just erasing male. It’s male or female. We're looking for gender neutrality.”
When asked about any concerns that “he/she” might run into some problems with people who don’t identify in that binary, Russell said he was not.
“We're going to start with this bit of neutrality and see where it takes us.”
The city attorney's office will take this opportunity before the reprinting to clean up other things like references to departments that don’t exist anymore, state statutes that have been repealed or code that is long gone.
“When you make amendments, you do it in portions, a section at a time and there are 62 chapters so it's almost like putting a Band-Aid on various chapters,” explains Barnaby Min, deputy city attorney. “Nobody ever reads the entire thing at one time, so this is an opportunity to read the entire code.”
He is hesitant to put a timeline on that, but with 28 attorneys in their office, he said the goal is 1-2 months.
“Nobody likes spring cleaning, but at the end of the day you're sort of really happy that it happens,” said Min.
City Clerk Todd Hannon says these reference updates on top of basic formatting changes like getting rid of blank pages and consolidating partial pages will streamline the codebook, maybe cutting it down to a lean 10 pounds.
And about the gender-neutral ordinance that started this whole review and reprinting, “it'll be nice to be able to memorialize on the front of the codebook,” said Hannon
The change to gender-neutral language will need to go through two more readings at the commission after Thursday before it also ends up in the book.
In the meantime, the city will have to figure out what to replace words like man-made with. But that shouldn’t be too hard in a woman-made city.