Taking Action Using Ordinances, Resolutions, Motions, and Proclamations
July 13, 2022
Category: Legislative Body
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.
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 and 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 to prohibit criminal acts. 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.
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 In most instances, resolutions go into effect immediately, generally need not be published, and can be adopted by a majority of the governing body, assuming there is a quorum at the meeting during which the resolution is being considered.
Resolutions are typically used when deciding to surplus public property, directing the agency executive to take certain designated action, adopting council or board rules of procedure, or adopting personnel policies. Similarly, an “order” is sometimes used when directing that a specific action be taken, and once complied with, an order no longer has effect.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 a governing body should use — 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 would be considered a legislative act? The general principle is that actions relating to subjects of a permanent and general character are usually regarded as legislative. Alternatively, actions providing for subjects of a temporary and special character are regarded as "administrative," and these are accomplished through resolutions.
The distinct steps involved when using an ordinance or a resolution 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” under RCW 35A.12.120. However, a lesser number of votes maybe required if the governing body can legally take action by resolution, and many cities require only a majority of councilmembers present vote affirmatively for passage of a resolution. Note that this does not extend to all circumstances: 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. A governing body should check to make sure that it is using the proper procedure and have the required number of votes.
Any member of the governing body can introduce an ordinance or resolution for consideration. Once introduced, the governing body may:
- act immediately upon the ordinance or resolution,
- refer it to a committee for study and recommendation,
- postpone consideration to some future time, or
- take any of the other subsidiary or privileged 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.
A motion is a proposal made by a member of a governing body during a meeting which the body then takes a particular action on. Similar to an order, a motion provides authority to do a specified act.
The proposed action may be substantive or it may express a certain view or direct a particular action be taken, such as an investigation. Once it has been approved and entered into the record, a motion is equivalent to a resolution.
A motion or order is often used to direct an agency executive to sign a contract that has been approved by the governing body. For citations regarding the above points, see the introduction of MRSC’s Local Ordinances publication.
Proclamations are generally broad statements expressing local government support for particular issues. Examples are diverse and can range from local (e.g., “acknowledging achievements of local teachers”) to national (e.g., “support for military veterans”) to international matters (e.g., “climate change”). Some local governments have adopted policies regarding the issuance of proclamations — for example, see 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.
There are no statutes that refer to local government proclamations.
A governing body has a variety of options it can use to take action on a topic of interest. Knowing which type of action to employ and under what circumstance helps to make the process more efficient and effective.
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