Friday, April 22, 2016

The City Spot Café: Dillon's Rule—Cities and the State

What you need to know about "Dillon’s Rule" right now, served up by the LMC Research and Information Service team.

Definition: Dillon's Rule is the go-to for deciding what cities can and cannot do—and explains a lot about the relationship between Minnesota cities and the state Legislature. A rule that Judge John F. Dillon put forth in 1872, this language holds that a strict or literal interpretation of the law should be used in determining city authority.

Here it is, in all it's 1872 glory:

“A city is a municipal corporation and possesses and exercise the following powers, and no others: First, those powers granted in express words; Second, those powers necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the powers expressly granted; third, those powers essential to the accomplishment of the declared objects and purposes of the corporation, not simply convenient, but indispensable.”  
—John F. Dillon, Commentaries on the Law of Municipal Corporations (3rd ed.) (1881) [Emphasis is Dillon's own.]

Plain-language translation: A common problem that arises in a discussion of what cities can and cannot do is the interpretation of how law applies in actual practice. Will the courts allow cities to exercise only those powers that the law strictly spells out (like providing water, protecting people and property) or will they allow a city to do anything reasonably related to that authority (seizing illegally sold liquor, requiring insurance for certain license holders). Traditionally, the courts solved this problem by referring to Dillon's Rule—i.e. the outline of city power includes that which is laid out in state law or those powers that go hand-in-hand with state laws. It's all about boundaries.

Dillon’s Rule in Minnesota is established in the state Constitution, which gives the Legislature the power to give or take away city authority. (Theoretically, they could even abolish cities, gasp!) 

In the news: This rule was mentioned in recent news coverage of why local governments may benefit from lobbying services at the Capitol—like those the League provides. Because the state plays an important role in determining city authority and responsibility, it is important that local government advocates be present to serve as a resource for legislators and state agencies.

Pros: It helps city councils, staff, and everyone understand what cities can and cannot do. In one old case, a city in another state actually printed their own money to pay for some new roads. Not a good idea. That's in violation of Dillon’s Rule, and the city had to pay all the money back to all who ‘bought’ city money.

Cons: Sometimes the limits in Dillon’s Rule make it hard to do new things or small things. For example, cities typically cannot hold fundraisers even to purchase updated and accessible playground equipment.

League position: Local units of government must have sufficient authority and flexibility to meet the challenges of governing and providing citizens with public services. However, state leaders need to be careful not to give cities the "authority" to perform duties that cities don't have the resources for— i.e. blanket unfunded and underfunded mandates that erode local control and create liability and financial risk for city taxpayers.

Resource: Want additional info on Mr. Dillon and his rule?  Check out page 14 of Chapter One of the Handbook for Minnesota Cities, under the heading "General Powers of a Statutory City."

This information has been compiled by Jeanette Behr, staff attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1228. 

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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