Forty-three states in the U.S. either constitutionally or statutorily allow for Municipal Home Rule. In some, citizens are able to write and adopt their own local governing constitutions. While the process for becoming a Home Rule municipality differs among the states, it often requires the electorate to first vote to become a Home Rule municipality, as well as elect community representatives to draft a new charter. That charter is then brought before voters for their approval.
With Home Rule, municipalities take themselves out from under Dillon’s Rule – the prevailing legal doctrine which states that municipalities only have the powers given to them explicitly by the state – and instead allows them to create a form and structure of governance of their choosing, so long as they do not conflict with state or federal law. In the State of Washington, for example, where we launched the Envision Spokane project, Home Rule municipalities have the ability to establish local laws that may be stricter than state law, unless the state expressly prohibits this. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we consulted with the elected Government Study Commission, which produced the first community rights-based municipal Home Rule Charter for Blaine Township.
People are beginning to embrace the idea of drafting Home Rule charters as a way to assert in law their communities’ vision for the future, by enumerating the rights of the municipal citizenry, including their right to a certain quality of life, and codifying legal protections of those rights at the local level.
The Home Rule process can serve as an important vehicle for communities that are seeking to challenge the fundamental structure of law which puts the rights of corporations over those of communities; prevents communities from saying “no” to projects that are harmful for workers, the local economy, livability, property values, or the environment; and ultimately prevents municipalities from creating the economically and environmentally sustainable communities they seek.
We are working with communities on Home Rule efforts, as communities are finding that the writing of a local charter of governance allows citizens and municipalities a much broader foundation to work from than the framework of a single ordinance. Adopting a rights-based home rule charter is an obvious step toward community assertion of the inalienable right to local self-government, and a fulfillment of the long-postponed ideals of the American Revolution.