Why do cities have ordinances?

Residents from time-to-time question why a specific ordinance exists or the very basis of why ordinances exist whatsoever. Ordinances are the laws of a municipality. All local governmental units are “creatures of the state” and subject to state law. The Minnesota Constitution authorizes any local government unit, when authorized by law, to adopt a home rule charter for its government. A charter must be approved by the voters of the local government unit as prescribed by general law.

The home rule Charter for Marshall became effective on July 23, 1969. Under it, the city has full power to deal with all matters of municipal concern and has complete self-government in harmony with, and subject to, the constitution and laws of Minnesota. The Charter defines the organizational functions, powers, and essential procedures of the city government. By a majority vote of the City Council, these functions and powers, as defined, are legislated by the ordinances passed.

The U.S. Constitution is silent on local government. It is, therefore, a residual power left to the states and people by the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Despite this, the foundation of why government exists at the local level has its foundation from early American colonial thought.

America’s form of government is based on a set of ideas. These ideas establish what the purpose of government should be and what kind of government is best. Many of the Founding Father’s (writers of the Constitution) ideas about government were based on the ideas of philosopher John Locke. John Locke tried to imagine what life would be like if people lived in a state of nature, which is a situation where no governments or laws existed at all. In a state of nature, people might feel free to do anything they want to do. However, their rights would not be protected, and they would feel insecure.

Locke argued that people should agree with one another to give up some of their freedom in exchange for protection and security. They should consent to follow some laws in exchange for the protection that these laws would give them. This leads people to arrive at an agreement to create a government to rule them and protect their natural rights. In this agreement the people consent to obey the laws created by that government.

Alexander Hamilton, American revolutionary, statesman and Founding Father of the United States observed that “Civil liberty is only natural liberty modified and secured by the sanctions of civil society….The origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact between the rulers and the ruled, and must be liable to such limitations as are necessary for the security of the absolute rights of the latter.”

As Thomas Jefferson said in the preamble of the  HYPERLINK “https://www.thoughtco.com/declaration-of-independence-brief-history-3320098” Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That ​to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .”,

In an agreement between parties, one must give up something to get something (compromise). In a civilized community, everyone promises to give up the right to do everything they want in exchange for security that can be provided by a government. Each person agrees to obey the limits placed on them by the laws of the government. Everyone gains the security of knowing that their rights to life, liberty, and property are protected.

The concern of the government for the health, peace, morality, and safety of its citizens, termed general welfare is also a basic goal of city ordinances. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution cites promotion of the general welfare as a primary reason for the creation of the Constitution. Minnesota Statutes provides authority for a city to legislate for the general welfare of their citizens as follows:

“The council shall have power to provide for the government and good order of the city, the suppression of vice and immorality, the prevention of crime, the protection of public and private property, the benefit of residence, trade, and commerce, and the promotion of health, safety, order, convenience, and the general welfare by such ordinances not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States or of this state as it shall deem expedient.”

Cities must maintain city facilities, address zoning and building regulations, promote the city’s economic development, provide law enforcement and fire protection to name a few. Ordinances (laws) protect our general safety and ensure our rights as citizens against abuses by other people, by organizations, and by the government itself. 

— Sharon Hanson is city administrator for the city of Marshall


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