Ordinances and Resolutions: A Citizen’s Guide


We talk a lot about local policy decisions, but what does that really mean?

Resolutions and ordinances are the two policy actions that local governments use most frequently to make decisions. The exact method for making these decisions is governed by either the city’s charter or the state code and usually requires a majority vote of the city council or the county commission. Once the decisions are made, they are legally binding and the local government is obligated to enforce or enact them.


Ordinances are most often used to create or modify the laws which regulate citizen action within the local government’s jurisdiction. They are meant to be permanent in nature, although like all local policies they can be changed. Additionally, ordinances often carry a penalty should a citizen not abide by the law that the ordinance creates or changes. For example, an ordinance might assess a fine to anyone who does not follow it. 

Typical types of ordinances that cities pass might fall into categories such as criminal ordinances, which define behaviors that are illegal within city limits- things like littering or public intoxication or land use ordinances- things like building and fire codes or ordinances regulating when and how you can build structures on a flood plain.

Passing an ordinance is more challenging than passing a resolution. The proposed legislation must be read and voted on at least twice, with the second vote being final and legally binding.


Resolutions differ from ordinances in a few key ways. First, they often care for matters that are much less permanent than the matters addressed by ordinances. A good example of this is a city council voting to allocate money to a specific project. Whether that project needs a few dollars- planting a tree in the park; or millions of dollars – redeveloping an entire main street; a resolution is the correct tool because the city council or county commission is only authorizing the money to be spent once.

Additionally, resolutions may be made about matters that aren’t as serious or as specific as those handled by ordinances. Language can be more aspirational, and there is no penalty associated with a resolution. When communities designate a specific day to honor a local hero, decide that they want to host a Valentine’s Day Parade, or commit to being a healthier community, these types of decisions are made by passing resolutions.

Resolutions are typically easier to pass than ordinances. They need only be read once and then are adopted by a majority vote of the local government. 

What this means for local policy change

Citizens who are interested in making local change have both of these decision making processes available to them. 

Trying to set up a rental registry for landlords in your community? That’s probably going to be an ordinance- there’s a fine if they don’t register. Want to see a new playground at the park? That’s a resolution- they’re only going to authorize that money to be spent once. 

If possible, work with local government officials to determine which policy action makes the most sense for what you’re trying to accomplish. Asking for the correct type of policy action can get you talking to the correct local officials and help you achieve your goals for your community faster.

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