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Taking Action Using Ordinances, Resolutions, Motions, and Proclamations


February 20, 2020 by MRSC Insight
Category: Legislative Body

Taking Action Using Ordinances, Resolutions, Motions, and 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 an overview of the various options, from ordinances to proclamations. 

Ordinances

An ordinance is local law, enacted by the proper authorities, prescribing general, uniform, and permanent rules of conduct relating to the corporate affairs of the municipality.

Ordinances are similar in nature to statutes enacted by the legislature, passed according to procedures required by state law or charter (such as notice, public hearing, required number of votes, and publication). They can be used to fix legal rights and duties, to regulate activities, or, for acts considered criminal, to prohibit them altogether. Ordinances are generally considered “permanent,” and can only be amended by enacting a new ordinance.

Typically, ordinances cannot go into effect immediately and some may be subject to referendum. Changes to a jurisdiction's criminal code, zoning code, or development regulations are common legislative acts accomplished through ordinances.

Resolutions

A resolution is a formal expression of opinion, will, or intent from an official body that often addresses a matter of special or temporary nature. In most instances, resolutions go into effect immediately, generally need not be published (see note below), and can be adopted by a majority of the membership present, assuming there is a quorum. 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 Once complied with, an order no longer has effect.

Note: There are a few instances when a county ordinance or resolution must be published. For example, RCW 36.32.120(7) requires publication of police or sanitary regulations.

When should an ordinance be used instead of a resolution?

Sometimes the answer as to which should be used, ordinance or resolution, is as simple as a statute or charter that specifies use. For example, ordinances must be used to adopt a code city budget (RCW 35A.33.075) or to vacate a county road (RCW 36.87.120). In general, ministerial and administrative acts may be exercised by resolution, but legislative acts 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. Actions providing for subjects of a temporary and special character are regarded as "administrative," and these are accomplished through resolution.  

The distinction between using an ordinance or resolution procedure can, in some situations, be important. For instance, under RCW 35A.12.120 passage of an ordinance in a code city requires “the affirmative vote of at least a majority of the whole membership of the council.” 

If the action could be legally taken by resolution, then a lesser number of votes might be required, and many cities require only a majority of a quorum for passage of a resolution. But be careful: RCW 35A.12.120 requires code cities to have the same number of votes for a resolution calling for the payment of money as it does for an ordinance.  Check to make sure that you are using the proper procedure and have the required number of votes.

For either an ordinance or resolution, any member of the governing body can introduce one for consideration. Once introduced, the governing body may act immediately upon the ordinance (or resolution) may refer it to a committee for study and recommendation, postpone consideration to some future time, or take any of the other subsidiary or privileged motion actions. After the issue has been fully considered and discussed by the legislative body, the presiding officer can then read the ordinance (or resolution) and call for a vote.  

Motions

A “motion” is similar to an order; it provides authority to do a specified act. A motion is a pro­posal made by a member during a meeting, which the legislative body then takes a particular action on. 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 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.

Proclamations

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., “climate change”). Some cities have adopted policies regarding the issuance of proclamations — for example, Tacoma Council Rules of Procedure Rule 8(E).

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.

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MRSC Insight reflects the best writing of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts.

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