Guide to Writing Effective Resolutions and Ordinances

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October 28, 2015
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October 28, 2015

Resource: Guide to Writing Effective Resolutions and Ordinances

About Resolutions and Ordinances

Most city councils (or comparable local legislative bodies) can take action in one of two ways: by ordinance or resolution.

Although this can vary community to community, typically a RESOLUTION is passed to express the opinion of the adopting body on some matter of a temporary or advisory nature (such as expressing its concern over the USA PATRIOT Act), or to handle administrative business. An ORDINANCE is passed to enact regulations of a general and permanent nature, enforceable as local law. An example of this would be to legally require the posting of a warning against USA PATRIOT Act Sec. 215 in your local libraries.

The vast majority of communities that have acted in opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act have passed resolutions, however a few communities have passed ordinances (see St. Paul’s or Minneapolis’s ordinances as examples).

Parts of a Resolution

Resolutions have two main parts: preambular clauses and operative clauses.

PREAMBULAR clauses, which typically start with the word “whereas,” give background information on why your community is passing its resolution. These clauses can refer to the following aspects:

  • the topic itself (for example, the USA PATRIOT Act and other federal government policy)
  • the occasion of consideration of the topic (for example, Sept. 11th or the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act)
  • recent incidents, and recent developments (for example, recent legislation that threatens our civil rights and liberties)
  • previous resolutions (for example, if your community has passed previous resolutions or laws to protect civil rights and liberties)
  • the Constitution
  • local history or community characteristics

OPERATIVE clauses, which typically start with “be it resolved” followed by an active, present tense verb (like “affirms” or “encourages”), call upon certain bodies to act. These clauses can contain the following aspects:

  • recommendations for specific action
  • statements of opinions
  • requests for further consideration or monitoring

Tips for Writing and Passing an Effective Resolution

1. Build a Broad Coalition. Writing the resolution should not be the starting point.

  • First, it is critical to build a diverse group of community members who support your efforts. This enables your group to demonstrate to your local legislative body that your concerns are valid and important and that local community members are educated on the issues. Building public support also helps to demonstrate to your legislative body why it is a local issue.
  • Additionally, if you choose to have a resolution or ordinance to increase monitoring about how the USA PATRIOT Act is being implemented, it is best to obtain the prior approval of the government agency that will be doing the monitoring. Many communities have Human Rights Commissions that may be willing to carryout monitoring.

2. Study legislative processes in your town or city.

  • Some cities may require you to have a councilperson introduce the resolution while in other cities you may be able to put the resolution on the agenda.
  • As an initial step, your group should build a relationship with members on your local legislative body. If the body feels that the resolution is a joint effort, there will be a greater chance that the resolution will pass.
  • You may want to even approach a member to draft the resolution, which you can collaboratively revise. Feel free to show the members a list of cities that have passed resolutions and to give them a sample resolution.
  • Also, in most locations, resolutions will not have lasting legal effect and if this is the case you may want to consider passing a city ordinance or other local legislation (see the explanation of resolutions and ordinances above).

3. Focus on using mandatory language (“shall” “must” “will”, etc.) versus discretionary language (“we encourage x body to…” “may”, etc.). Mandatory language helps to create a legally binding duty for the adopting body and those bodies it has jurisdiction over (such as local police departments). However, your resolution cannot have legally binding authority over other bodies that your adopting body does not have jurisdiction over, such as Congress or the President- for these bodies the resolution can only “urge” them to act. Like all legal language, the more specific you make the duty, the easier it will be to enforce.

4. Be textually accurate. In describing all laws and regulations, try to quote textual language or summarize directly from the textual language, citing the relevant section of the Act. Avoiding sweeping allegations or broad textual summaries will bring credibility and factual accuracy to your resolution and will also steer the discussion away from rhetoric towards meaningful discourse. Complete text of the USA PATRIOT Act

5. Allow for revisions. It is important to have some flexibility for compromises that may be necessary to pass the resolution in your legislative body.

6. Maintain your community network. As you may have to play watchdog to make sure the provisions or your resolution or ordinance are properly implemented, it is vital to keep your group connected and continuously informed. Additionally, as you probably know, new threats to our civil liberties arise all the time and keeping your network together will help your community address them in the future. Passing a resolution is just the first step towards protecting your civil rights and liberties.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. If your community has a tip that you think is important to include, please let us know.

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