What is a City Ordinance? (Overview, Definition, and Examples)

  • By: Tara Astbury
  • January 25, 2024

Within the U.S., you’re subject to federal, state, and local laws. Local laws are defined either by the county, the city, or both. In city limits, city ordinances apply. Examples of city ordinances include zoning and noise policies. 

Ordinances are typically decided through the actions of the city council or other local governing body. These decisions are achieved using careful meeting planning and voting procedures.

What is a City Ordinance?

A city ordinance is a local law. Cities can set laws that differ from the state or county, though typically they build onto state and county laws to provide greater definition or limitations for those inside city limits. Noise ordinances are a common example in which a city will define what qualifies as nuisance levels of noise within residential neighborhoods.

City ordinances allow each community to determine their own rules for how they will be governed. Access to the city council ensures residents have a say in the rules they abide by. City ordinances often reflect the culture, climate, and lifestyles of residents who have contributed to the lawmaking process.

The Basic Components of a City Ordinance

There are many types of city ordinance, from behavioral ordinances like local noise laws to purely administrative ordinances that regulate city management. However, every ordinance shares a few basic components when drafted to be enacted.

  • Statement of Purpose
    • The statement of purpose outlines the reason for the ordinance and the intended effect. You could say it displays the spirit of the law.
  • Definitions
    • Definitions are necessary for any legal document. They define the exact application of the terms used to create the ordinance.
  • Mandates
    • Mandates outline the rules that the ordinance seeks to enforce. This can be local laws, mandatory procedures, or even the establishment of a committee that provides a service for the city.
  • Enforcement Criteria
    • Lastly, the ordinance will define how it will be enforced, including the consequences for breaking the law, who is responsible for enforcing the law, and the powers they have to enact enforcement.

How to Pass a City Ordinance

If you wish to create and pass a city ordinance, this can be done through a local city council meeting. Someone must draft and propose the ordinance, and then the city council members will conduct a vote on whether to pass the ordinance, alter it, or put the decision off until later. Here are the steps in detail:

1. Draft the Ordinance

First, you need a well-researched draft of the ordinance you wish to pass. You will likely benefit from using other ordinances of your city to create a structural template. Fill out each section including the purpose, definitions, and mandate. You may also want to prepare research or evidence to back your ordinance.

2. Introduce the Ordinance During a Council Meeting

With your ordinance drafted, the next step is to attend a city council meeting. Depending on whether you’re a council member or a community resident, you will wait until the appropriate moment and then rise to speak. When acknowledged, you can introduce the ordinance to the council and submit your draft. In some  cities, you may even have a pre-meeting process where you can submit your ordinance and get added to the meeting agenda ahead of time.

3. Council Review

When your ordinance is introduced, the council will have an opportunity to review your documents and ensure everything is in order. Council members will have the right to debate acceptance of your ordinance or to submit changes which will be individually reviewed by the council.

4. Council Vote

When debate, modifications, and review is complete, the city council chair will call a vote.  Then each city council member will cast their vote to pass or deny your proposed ordinance. 

5. Acceptance

If the vote passes, your ordinance will become accepted as a new city law. Likely, a given effective start date and enforcement date will have been defined in your original document or during the review process. This determines when the ordinance becomes enforceable as a rule of the city. The city clerk and city administrator will likely collaborate on the ordinance’s implementation.

eScribe Powers Effective City Councils

Operating a city council is more involved than most people imagine before they attend their first meeting or become a council member. City council work includes not only internal planning, debate, and voting, but also the involvement of the entire community. This is where meeting management platforms like eScribe play a critical role. 

The eScribe platform offers a comprehensive toolkit designed to provide exactly what your council and governing offices need to streamline meetings and administrative tasks. 

eScribe’s essential features include

  • Meeting Manager
  • Vote Manager & Request to Speak
  • Council Participant Portal
  • Citizen Engagement Tools
  • Delegation Request Management
  • Webcasting & Video Management
  • Meeting Minutes
  • Reporting on Workflows
  • Collaboration Tools

These tools eliminate hours spent on manual processes, increase transparency, and even create a single data-central platform where you can generate useful reports from city council meetings and operations over time. Pricing is approachable and based on the size of your organization.

eScribe is proud to provide the tools that city councils and governing offices need to thrive. One great example is the City of Greensboro, which adopted eScribe as their core management platform in 2021 and discovered spectacular results. 

Check out their case study to learn how eScribe transforms city governance and helps city managers streamline their processes.