Minnesota Cities Magazine

Letter of the Law: Where Does the City’s Power Come From?

By James Mongé

The League of Minnesota Cities regularly gets questions about what cities are permitted to do. Can the city incorporate a nonprofit corporation? Can the city donate money to the local little league for baseball equipment? Can the city have an employee recognition dinner? Answering these questions requires that we identify a law that gives the city the power to do what it seeks to accomplish.

Cities may only exercise their powers in accordance with the federal and state constitutions and state statutes. These laws grant cities authority to carry out their functions, but also limit what cities can do.

Understanding the source and extent of city authority is important because when a city acts beyond the scope of its authority, it risks legal liability and having its action declared invalid by a court.

Front of a city hall buildingU.S. and state constitutions
The U.S. Constitution outlines the relationship between the federal government and the states. It does not address local government. However, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights does place significant limitations on city powers. For example, city officials and city employees may not take action that abridges an individuals’ freedom of speech or deprives them of due process and equal protection of the laws.

Since the U.S. Constitution is silent on the creation and organization of local governments, that power is reserved for the states. Under Article XII, section 3 of the Minnesota Constitution: “The Legislature may provide by law for the creation, organization, administration, consolidation, division, and dissolution of local government units.”

The state Legislature has primacy over cities. Cities have no inherent powers. They possess only the powers that the state expressly grants them by statute, or that are implied as necessary to the exercise of powers expressly granted.

State statutes
State statutes prescribe a handful of options for organizing as a city in Minnesota. Cities may be organized as statutory cities (standard plan, Optional Plan A, or Optional Plan-B) or home rule charter cities. Cities are not empowered to organize any other way. How a city is organized dictates the powers it exercises.

State law permits cities to organize according to a city charter. The charter controls both the form of city government and its powers. Charter cities have wide discretion to provide for any form of government that is not inconsistent with the state constitution or statutes.

Charter cities may exercise all powers the state constitution permits a city to assume. A charter may also place limitations on the city’s exercise of power. For example, the city charter may set the procedure for passing ordinances or provide for initiatives and referendums. A city charter is both a source of and limitation on the powers a city can exercise.

Most cities in Minnesota (746 of 853) do not have a city charter. Instead, they are organized pursuant to the statutory city code, which is found at Chapter 412 of the Minnesota Statutes. The statutory city code is the primary source of their authority.

Some examples of the powers Chapter 412 specifically grants cities include the power to:

  • Acquire and dispose of real and personal property.
  • Make contracts necessary to carry out the powers granted to the city.
  • Prosecute and defend legal actions.
  • Open, maintain, and regulate the use of streets, sidewalks, sewers, parks, and other public grounds.
  • Establish a fire department.
  • Regulate the keeping of animals.
  • Regulate nuisances.
  • Require connection to city sewer and water.

Additional powers
State statutes located outside of the statutory city code grant all cities, including charter cities, additional powers. For example, Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 462 authorizes cities to engage in land use planning and zoning, and Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 429 authorizes cities to levy special assessments for local improvements. Cities must follow the procedures prescribed by statute to exercise these powers.

In addition to the powers the law specifically confers, cities may also exercise any power implied as necessary to exercise powers that have been expressly conferred. However, whether a power is implied by law is subject to interpretation. Therefore, best practice is to seek a legal opinion from the city attorney addressing the scope of the city’s implied authority.

For more information on the scope of city authority, see the League’s Handbook for Minnesota Cities.

James Mongé is a research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: jmonge@lmc.org or (651) 281-1271.

Read the November-December 2013 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

* By posting you are agreeing to the LMC Comment Policy.