Ordinance vs. Resolution

A frequent dilemma, particularly for new councilmembers and staff, is deciding when it is appropriate to use a resolution versus an ordinance.

Municipal councils can enact regulations, resolutions and ordinances, as long as they do not conflict with provisions in the state constitution or state law.

State law requires the following actions to be accomplished by ordinance.

  • annexing property (Sections 5-3-150, 5-7-300)
  • setting salaries for council (Section 5-7-170)
  • conducting municipal elections (Section 5-15-10, et seq.)
  • adopting standard codes (Sections 5-7-280, 6-9-60)
  • adopting council rules of procedure (Section 5-7-270)
  • adopting procurement ordinances (Section 11-35-50)
  • adopting a comprehensive plan, zoning and land development regulations. (Section 6-29-310, et seq.)
Additionally, state law requires council use an ordinance to take any action covered under the categories listed below.
  • Adopt or amend an administrative code or establish, alter or abolish any municipal department, office or agency;

  • Provide for a fine or other penalty or establish a rule or regulation in which a fine or other penalty is imposed for violations;

  • Adopt budgets, levy taxes, except as otherwise provided with respect to the property tax;

  • Grant, renew or extend franchises;

  • Authorize the borrowing of money; and

  • Sell, lease or contract to sell or lease any lands of the municipality.

If state law does not require using an ordinance, council can choose whether to use an ordinance or resolution. It is this flexibility that often causes confusion.

Municipal officials should carefully examine the purpose and impact of the action. "When enacting a law or adopting a rule with broad applicability, significant impact and an extended duration, council should use an ordinance," advised Eric Budds, deputy executive director of the Municipal Association. 

Every proposed ordinance must be introduced in writing and in the format required for final adoption. No ordinance has the force of law until it has had at least two readings on two separate days with at least six days between each reading. If local rules of procedure call for three readings, council must follow the requirements in those rules. 

Once adopted, municipal ordinances must be typewritten or printed, maintained in a current form, indexed, codified (put into an organized system) and be available for public inspection at reasonable times. This ensures council used a deliberative process to adopt the ordinance and the enacted ordinance is an accessible public record.

Council can only amend or repeal an adopted ordinance by adopting another ordinance following the process described above.

Unlike an ordinance, a resolution requires only one reading and vote by council. A resolution is a written motion of council which generally establishes a determination or expression of a policy or position on an issue. The policy or position is generally considered to have a limited duration because it can be changed at any time by one vote of council.

In substance, there is no difference between a written resolution and a verbal motion approved by council. Resolutions are often used instead of verbal motions when council wants to put greater emphasis or visibility on an action item.