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Taking Action: Ordinances, Resolutions, Motions, & Proclamations

April 24, 2017 by Jim Doherty
Category: Governance

Taking Action: Ordinances, Resolutions, Motions, & Proclamations

MRSC is frequently asked about the procedure to use when a legislative body (council, commission, or board) is taking action on an issue. Here is how we generally explain the options.

Ordinances and Resolutions

Obviously, if a state statute requires one form be used instead of the other, that requirement must be followed. If no particular form is specified, either a resolution or ordinance may be used. Ministerial and administrative acts may be exercised by resolution. Legislative acts, however, should be made by ordinance.

What is a “legislative” act? The general guiding principle is that actions relating to subjects of a per­manent and general character are usually regarded as legislative. Changes to a jurisdiction's criminal code, zoning code, or development regulations are common legislative acts. Annexations are also legislative.

Actions providing for subjects of a temporary and special character are regarded as "administrative." Resolutions are typically used when deciding to surplus public property, when directing the executive to take certain designated action, when adopting council or board rules of procedure, or when adopting personnel policies. An “order” is similarly sometimes used when directing that a specific action be taken. Once an order has been complied with, it no longer has effect.

The distinction between using an ordinance or resolution procedure can, in some situations, be important. For instance, passage of an ordinance in a code city requires “the affirmative vote of at least a majority of the whole membership of the council.” See RCW 35A.12.120. If the action could be legally taken by resolution, then a lesser number of votes might be required—many cities require only a majority of a quorum for passage of a resolution. But be careful: in a code city a resolution for the payment of money requires the same number of votes as an ordinance. See RCW 35A.12.120. Check to make sure that you are using the proper procedure and have the required number of votes.

Amending an ordinance can only be done by enacting another ordinance.


A “motion” is similar to an order; it provides authority to do a specified act. A motion is a pro­posal by a member, made at a meeting, that a legislative body take a particular action. The pro­posed action may be substantive, or it may express a certain view, or direct a particular action be taken, such as an investigation. A motion, once approved and entered into the record, is the equivalent to a resolution. A motion or order is often used to direct the executive to sign a contract that has been approved by the council or board. For citations regarding the above points, see the introduction of MRSC’s Local Ordinances publication.


There are no statutes that refer to local government proclamations. Proclamations are generally broad statements expressing local government support for particular issues. Examples are diverse and can range from local (e.g., “eat healthy”) to national (e.g., “support for military veterans”) to international matters (e.g., “global warming”). Some cities have adopted policies regarding the issuance of proclamations—see, for example, Tacoma Council Rules of Procedure Rule 8(D).

The terms “proclamation” and “declaration” have also both been used in reference to emergencies. Such designations by the governor or the executive head of a local government initiate the process for taking necessary actions to deal with a disaster.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Jim Doherty

Jim had over 24 years of experience researching and responding to varied legal questions at MRSC. He had special expertise in transmission pipeline planning issues, as well as the issues surrounding medical and recreational marijuana. He is now retired.



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