Ordinances, Resolutions, and Motions

Truman Stone

This article is to provide a review of the fundamentals on how government bodies make formal decisions or exercise the government body’s power.  The first part outlines the options, with the second part providing some overview of the mechanics.

Unlike Federal and State systems, local governments typically do not have separation of powers.  For instance, a Fire District Board may in a single meeting act like a legislature by passing a fire code, or act as an executive branch by approving a contract.  The type of decision will dictate the form used.

When adopting generally applicable laws that would apply in future circumstances, the government body is acting like a legislature.  In that case, an ordinance is the proper vehicle.  You could compare this to a bill coming before the Oregon legislature.  Those ordinances or bills are often then compiled together into a code to make it easier to track and research the enactment.  Ordinances typically go into effect thirty (30) days after adoption, with notable exceptions.

Hiring employees, awarding a construction bid, instructing staff to work on things, or approving a contract are common examples of the government body acting in an executive capacity to run the government.  The more formal of these decisions are typically made by resolution and the less formal by motion, but both are types of the same action.  Resolutions or motions typically go into effect the day following adoption, or at a later specified date.

Clients frequently ask about the structure within the document itself.  Documents usually start with recitals which contain brief explanations of why the action is being taken.  This creates a legislative history for future reference.  These paragraphs often start with a “Whereas” meaning that the government body is finding this specific fact or circumstance exists that caused the government body to act.  Sometimes these facts are more general, and sometimes they are absolutely required by a statute to be found to exist, for instance a factual finding of an emergency.

Sometimes the findings are extensive, and it would create readability problems to list those all out in the main document.  For those occasions, you may include factual findings in exhibits to attach and make a reference to the exhibit in the body of the main document.  An example: “Wherefore, the City Council makes and adopts the findings set out in the attached Exhibit A, which is incorporated by this reference.”

Actions come at the bottom in the section that often starts with “Therefore.”  Because of the facts above, therefore, the following action is undertaken.  All the action happens here, not in the recitals.  If you expect someone to do something, it should be in this part of the document.

It is important to look to your city charter or enabling legislation (i.e. principle act) for specific requirements that may apply to your government.  We are always here to help, so if you are unsure, give us a call.