County home rule offers local control

Last week, the Walsh County Record carried an advertisement for a county treasurer, setting out qualifications as follows:

Candidates must have a proven track record of being proficient and accurate with numbers and professional and courteous transactions… A background in finances, business, or accounting would be beneficial, as well as a familiarity with spread sheets and word processing software.

Because Walsh was the first county to adopt home rule, it was ready to take advantage of a vacancy in an elective office. From the job description, it looks like counties with home rule will be able to make significant strides in building professional careers for administrative positions.

Counties Adopt Home Rule

Around a dozen North Dakota counties have adopted home rule, with all major counties except Grand Forks assuming local responsibility of powers available under home rule. (Grand Forks County is now moving toward asking its citizens to approve home rule in 2022.)

In 2006, I was delegated by the Grand Forks county commission to chair the home rule committee. In the public hearings outside of the city we were met with hostility even though the rural area could have been guaranteed representation on the county commission with home rule. The home rule charter was soundly defeated.

Home Rule Guru

It gives me personal pleasure to see county and city home rule used in a dozen counties and over 100 cities.

For 30 years, I was North Dakota’s guru on home rule.

In 1970, I served on the Grand Forks City home rule committee and drafted the first model for home rule in cities. This model has been used as the core for over 100 home rule cities.

Following legislative authorization for county home rule, using the model for city home rule, I was able to draft the model for counties which has been used by all counties with home rule.

Home Rule Flexible

Counties have used home rule for a variety of initiatives, depending on local needs. Several cities have used home rule to raise money for jails and criminal justice. (Grand Forks has a pressing need for jail space and that need is the impetus of present efforts to get home rule.)

While cities and counties with home rule deserve credit for creative uses of home rule, they could be using it for more streamlining of city and county services. We have barely scratched the surface of powers that could be exercised by city and county governments. All county charters include the power of the citizens to refer actions under home rule.

No Objections

In Walsh County (Grafton) no one appeared at two hearings to object to the professionalization of the position treasurer. This suggests that the citizenry may be ready to tolerate more use of home rule in the future.

However, the country is seized by a historic negativism toward state and national governments. It is a time one would expect more citizen support for local control available under home rule.

Unfortunately, North Dakota has what is called “legislative home rule” that can be changed by any session of the legislature. Some states have their home rule in state constitutions, thereby preventing legislative interference.

Legislature Meddles

Case in point: Glen Ullin had proposed to impose a motor vehicle fuel tax under city home rule but the legislature quickly made that illegal. So it will be necessary to keep the legislature at bay to protect the powers made available to cities and counties under home rule.

Because the groundwork for city and county home rule occurred 40 to 50 years ago, it is very likely that all of the officials working with home rule have no clue as to when and how home rule got established in North Dakota.

While my home rule efforts may be worth including in a future job application, it doesn’t rise to tombstone significance.


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