Municipal Law Semester Research Project

by | Mar 13, 2021 | College (3-4), Law

The Semester Research Project is a self-directed learning exercise where students will craft a “real world” initiative to improve the lives of affected Massachusetts citizens, research the law and governance on the initiative, synthesize, explain the project in a presentation, and, finally, write a case study on the topic.  The overarching goal of the project is for students to hypothetically be able to present their initiative research to a municipal administration, explain the law (substantive and procedural) behind initiative, and provide guidance how law affects the issue.

THIS EXERCISE IS NOT A TRADITIONAL RESEARCH PROJECT – student must collect information on current problems and regulations, but students must then synthesize the material to create a roadmap for change.

NO personal information should be revealed in any part of the project.  Please exchange names as necessary (e.g. John Doe, Jane Doe, Mr. Doe, Mrs. Doe, etc.)

Students are free to use creative liberty in the foundational facts of the initiative.  Students are restricted from assuming the role of a municipal administrator (Mayor, Councilor), but they may pretend they are a concerned citizen, member of a political activism group, or a municipal advisor.  The goal is for students to act as advisors, or petitioners, rather than decision makers.  Advising requires both content understanding and the ability to analyze an issue from multiple perspectives.

Students may consider topics either discussed or not addressed in class: improved business relationships, fostering relationship with college students, decreased road work, lowered taxes, business restrictions such as drive-through restaurant limits or prohibitions.  The entire project will ultimately have a student reach, adopt, and devise a plan to implement an initiative to improve a Massachusetts municipality.

Part 1 – Community Survey.

Purpose: Students shall explore a real world initiative (referred to as a case study) they will help explain.  

Task: Survey a person (or people) in the local community (other students, professors, other WSU professionals [e.g. custodians, librarians, food service employees, police officers, administrators], contact any Westfield or other local municipal office [Schools, Police, Fire, Health, Building, Collector/Treasurer], Stop & Shop, Big Y, Walmart, or any of the several other local restaurants or shops]), to inquire about true-life issues those citizens are willing to share about municipal matters – something involving the City of Town they live or work in dealing with some form of authority.  Students should inquire of the citizens what frustration they had with the municipal governance, and what things they did not understand about either the substance of the law or the process.  The citizen inquiries or stories will form the basis of the student research project.  The goal of the project is to take a real life problems citizens have, research the law of the topic, and to provide an interpretation of the law which explains the law to people who have not or are unable to research it.  Part 1 is to develop the topic of the project.  Students may collect more than one issue to explore.

In order to keep from repeating projects, students will also need to select a TOWN OR CITY in Massachusetts which they intended to propose their change to.  Many towns or cities in Massachusetts may try to implement the same changes, but each town or cities will have different ordinances, regulations, or political structures which need to be navigated to effectuate change.  Just like current cities and towns, students are encouraged to work together to share similar aspect.  Students may work independently, or they may form a group of two (2) of their own choosing; however, once a group is formed it will not be split unless necessitated by extenuating circumstances and approved by the instructor.

To completely the task: Student will write a paragraph explanation to define what municipal related problems/issues they intend to explore over the course of the semester.  Students are free to amend, expand, or alter the problem as their research grows.

Part 2 – Outline of Research/Formulation of Initiative:

Purpose: With a defined Part 1 objective achieved, students will complete research to gain an understanding of the laws and legal parameters governing their topic and will outline their research in anticipation of drafting the final case study document.  The goal of the research is twofold (1) gain a preliminary understanding of the law on subject, and (2) begin to craft an initiative to remedy the problem.

The substance of the initiative is not the focus of the project.  Rather, the initiative is intended to provide a roadmap for someone to understand how to orchestrate local change: the student is not the decision maker on what local change should occur, rather, they are an advisor tasked with explaining how and why the change should be undertaken.  The focus of the project is the collection of data, synthesis of data, and application to the problem, and the ability to predict outcomes when applying research to the initiative.

Task:  Students will research laws/statutes and hypothesize what the anticipated impact of the law is on the initiative presented.  With an understanding of the law, based on the review of multiple sources, students will attempt to explain why the situation came out the way it did (what is the legal standard?), and/or predict what the outcome of the initiative will be.  Students should subsequently be able to predict if the anticipated result help or hurt the surveyed person and should be able to hypothesize how facts could be changed to achieve a desired result.

To Complete the Task: Students are required to provide at least seven additional sources (eight total, including the survey of the individual(s)). Three of the seven additional sources must be primary sources (e.g. one legal statute and two cases explaining the statute or law – as opposed to a scholarly publication or newspaper article).  More sources are welcome and will make crafting the Part 4 easier.  At least two (2) sources must reference the town or city which the project is based on – the municipality specific sources may be primary (local ordinance or charter) or secondary (new paper article or municipal publication).

Students are recommended to visit the Ely Library – the librarians are very helpful in explaining research strategies and knowledgeable on available research tools.  Research will be organized in a 1-2 page outline based on anticipated flow of the full case study – students should refer to Part 4 in planning the organization of flow.

The Outline should be submitted as a paper outline, meaning that sources should be grouped along with simple notes explaining how the sources will be used.  Format is liberal, but the outline should evidence both research and thought in organization of information flow.

Part 3 – Semester Project Presentation: student will create an informational presentation to educate viewers on the rights/duties/obligations of governance affecting their specific initiative.

Purpose: Provide an explanation of the problem and explain what the law on the topic is (using the actual source(s) of law), in an easy to understand language.

To Complete the Task: Student will create an informational presentation to educate viewers who may be faced with a similar problem in the future on the laws or governance affecting their specific case study.  The explanation can take a variety of styles.  The goal of the presentation is to explain the community initiative, synthesize the research found on topic, and to provide a roadmap for the change sought.  Presentations should be 5-7 minutes in length, which includes a minute or two dedicated to questions from the audience.  Student presentations may (should) consider the following:

  • What is the problem addressed, and what is the proposed solution to fix the problem?
  • What are the laws/processes which administrators/public should know to comply with the law to achieve their desired outcome?  
  • What are things people should avoid doing which may violate the law?  
  • What is the purpose of the law (so people may attempt to comply with the spirit of the law)?  
  • Students must reference their sources in their presentations.
  • Students may (and should) utilize the Part 2 outline in the creation of their presentation, but students must create a different product for Part 3 and Part 4 – simply reading the Part 4 essay over Powerpoint slides will result in a lower Part 3 and/or Part 4 score.

NOTE: STUDENTS MUST BE PRESENT ON THE DATE OF THEIR PRESENTATION IN ORDER TO PRESENT.  Order will be set at the beginning of class.  Accommodations in the event of an emergency or under extenuating circumstances may be made at the sole discretion of the instructor.

Part 4 – Project Paper: student shall document their research and question presented in a not-more-than 10 page case study.

Purpose: Students shall structure their research in a case study which frames their research question, applies their research, synthesizes and predicts the outcome of facts to the situation and explains how a result was reached.  The goal of the paper is to thoroughly explain the law in a way any person seeking to implement the same or a similar initiative could understand the expectation, and to further explain the application of the law to the case study research question.

To Complete the Task: The study should address the following items:

  • Define the question (survey question) so any reader will understand the matter.
  • Explain the legal framework around the issue
    • Identify any pertinent laws or statutes discovered
    • Explain the expectations of the statute in common language
    • Secondary sources, if used, should be used to further support the expectation of the legal framework
  • Apply the researched legal frame work to the initiative presented:
    • Apply the primary sources to the question presented
    • What does the law say should happen?  Can the initiative be allowed? Why or why not?
    • How are facts of the initiative similar to the facts of the cases that were researched?
    • How are the facts of the question presented different from the researched cases?
    • Reference the secondary sources as support for the position the initiative takes in making a hypothesis
  • Explain how the facts could be arranged for the administration/public to properly met expectation or could have done things different to achieved a different and intended result
    • This can be a praising (client wisely did X; had they done Y, the result would have changed to ….)
    • This can be constructive criticism (client did X, but committing act Y would likely have yield the following alternative results..)
    • Both of the above!
  • Students may include a brief (one to two pages, max) opinion on the politics of the law researched: how could the law be improved; what flaws exist in the law which should be addressed; why is the law an acceptable compromise of potential harms. Any discussions of the politics of the law MUST contain references to sources.  Commenting on amending the law is purposefully limited: the intent to the overall assignment is to understand and work within laws, rather than advocate for changing laws.

All research must be cited.  Student citation form can be selected, but must remain consistent.  Citations may be organized on separate paper and will not be counted toward the page limit.

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