Ordinances & Resolutions FAQ 3

What is the difference between an ordinance and a resolution and what determines whether an ordinance or resolution should be used?

Generally, an ordinance is a local law of a municipal corporation, duly enacted by the proper authorities, prescribing general, uniform and permanent rules of conduct relating to the corporate powers of the municipality. A simple or ordinary ordinance, as opposed to a charter ordinance, is used to effect most local legislative actions. State statutes sometimes require exercise of city or village powers by enactment of ordinances. Some examples include sec. 61.20(4) (changing number of village trustees), sec. 61.32 (changing salaries of village president and trustees), sec. 62.08(1) (altering aldermanic districts), sec. 62.09(6)(a) (changing salary of mayor and aldermen), and sec. 62.13(2) (cities under 4,000 adopting or repealing police and fire commission law).

In contrast, resolutions are generally less permanent enactments than ordinances. Resolutions commonly deal with matters of a special or temporary character. A resolution ordinarily denotes something less solemn or formal than, or not rising to the dignity of, an ordinance. They seldom if ever contain penalties and are the most common form of legislation employed by governing bodies to deal with special matters not affecting the general public such as granting special privileges, expressing opinions or communicating with other governmental units or departments or agencies of the municipality. Resolutions are generally brought to the council or board floor in writing. However, oral resolutions confirming committee reports or administrative actions are not uncommon. Certain state statutes specify exercise of city or village powers by resolution. Some examples include sec. 61.189(1), Stats. (changing from a village to a city), sec. 62.15(5), Stats. (rejecting bids on public construction), sec. 66.1105(4)(gm), Stats. (creating a tax incremental district) and sec. 66.0703(8), Stats. (levying special assessments).

Sometimes the decision regarding whether to use a resolution or ordinance will be governed by state or local law. As the above examples show, specific statutes may exist which require that action be taken by ordinance or resolution. But often the statutes do not specify a required form and then a local governing body has wide latitude in determining the form that its legislative or administrative actions take, and exercises this discretion on the basis of the desired permanency and impact of the action.

In general, the governing body should use an ordinary ordinance when amending, repealing or modifying an existing ordinance; or required by state law; or the act is of general application and intended to be reasonably permanent; or public notice (publication and inclusion in the local code of ordinances or ordinance book) is deemed desirable.

A resolution should be used when amending, repealing or modifying an existing resolution; or required by state law; or the action is temporary in nature, or not of general public concern; or the act is an order or directive relating primarily to internal municipal governmental affairs; or the act confirms previous action of a municipal officer or body not properly authorized by the governing body; or the act is an order or directive requiring a specified officer, agency or person to comply therewith.