The Georgia Constitution specifically provides for “home rule” for counties and municipalities in Georgia. While county home rule is constitutionally prescribed, cities may be granted the same right by the state legislature. In both cases the county or city is authorized to adopt “clearly reasonable ordinances, resolutions, or regulations . . . for which no provision has been made by general law and which is not inconsistent with” the Constitution of Georgia. They are prohibited, however, from acting in nine areas: elective offices and salaries, elections and appointments, criminal law, any form of taxation not authorized by the constitution or state law, activities otherwise regulated by the Georgia Public Service Commission, restriction on eminent domain (taking of private property for public use), the courts, the public schools, and private or civil relationships. They are granted specific “supplementary powers” in sixteen areas.
On the simplest level, home rule is just local self-government. What constitutes this self-government, however, is a matter of some dispute. The core principle is that local authorities or populatio ns seek a measure of freedom from the state legislature. Since states are unitary systems (all powers reside at the state level; cities, counties, and special districts are mere tools of the state), such freedom often is an illusion. States may require local governments to perform certain duties and revoke the charters of those who refuse to fulfill these directives. At its most basic, then, home rule is only the ability of local governments to draft and adopt their own charters.
Home rule is one of several proposals of “good government” groups that originated toward the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. State legislatures in particular were seen as hopelessly corrupt and controlled by predatory business interests. Home rule was seen as a way to break this power and corruption and provide at least some services to local populations. Beginning in the state of Missouri in 1875, cities gradually were granted home rule. Shortly afterward, counties also were granted home rule.
What local home-rule governments may or may not do is a source of contention. Georgia’s list of areas that local governments must avoid and areas that they are permitted to regulate is not unusual in constitutionally described (as opposed to legislatively described) home rule systems. Even so, these areas can be quite broad. In addition, what about situations not covered by the lists but that materialize as conditions change?
Generally, one of two approaches has been taken. The Dillon Rule has been the more popular and widely supported by the courts. Basically the rule says that local governments do not have powers that are not specifically listed in the document (constitution or law) creating the home-rule government. In the 1950s the Fordham Rule began to gain at least modest support. The Fordham Rule says that home-rule governments should be allowed to do whatever they want except in the areas of civil relations and felony criminal law.
Governments provide services first by describing what they intend to do. These descriptions are labeled variously as laws, acts, rules, regulations, services, policies, statutes, and ordinances. As a general rule, the word ordinance is reserved for local (county or city) use. Early in American history ordinance also applied to very broad general law. An example is the Ordinance of 1787, which provided for the government of the Northwest Territories. This use of the term appears to have faded over time.
Ordinances differ from the other possible labels in that they are limited to smaller geographic areas such as cities and counties. The other terms refer to what is known as general law or law of general applicability. Some scholars have tried to distinguish between ordinances and other terms by suggesting that the other kinds of descriptions are made by legislatures. But city councils and county commissions are legislatures as well, so that distinction is not very helpful.