Published On: Sun, Oct 17th, 2021

Understanding “Home Rule” in Florida

By: Robert S Weinroth

With the Florida legislature preparing for its annual 60-day session (this year held in January rather than March to allow members to campaign for re-election), its probably a good idea to review the principles of “Home Rule,” given the propensity for enacting legislative initiatives designed to dilute the powers of counties and municipalities to chart their own destinies.

As an aside, it should be noted that 2022 is a special year, coming as it does, after the decennial US Census results have been disseminated. Ordinarily, only half of our State Senators must stand for re-election (unless term limited from seeking re-election) during even years. However, with the redistricting that will be undertaken during the upcoming legislative session, every seat in the Florida House and Florida Senate will be up for grabs. This dynamic could have an impact on the bills introduced for consideration in both chambers. 

But I digress; let’s stay focused on the fundamentals of “Home Rule.”

The United States Constitution makes no mention of the powers related to local governments. The 10th Amendment reserves those powers to the state. 

During the 18th century, cities, counties and parishes across the nation derived their powers from their state constitutions, and those local governments relied upon their respective state legislatures for all powers. This was upheld in an 1860’s court case, called “Dillon’s Rule.” 

John Forest Dillon, for whom the Dillon Rule is named, was the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court and was considered one of the greatest authorities of his time on municipal law and a prolific writer about local governments.    

Judge Dillon was a man who greatly distrusted local governments and local government officials. He is quoted as saying “…those best fitted by their intelligence, business experience, capacity and moral character”  usually do not hold local office, and that the conduct of municipal affairs was generally “unwise and extravagant.”    

Perhaps largely because of such strong beliefs, Judge Dillon expounded his famous rule, which was quickly adopted by state supreme courts around the nation. 

Under Dillon’s Rule, one must assume the local government did NOT have the power in question. If there was any reasonable doubt whether a power had been conferred on a local government, then the power was deemed NOT to have been conferred thereto. This is known as the rule of local government powers.

An example of the difficulty in the non-Home Rule era would be the issue of traffic control signs: if a municipality wished to erect signs related to traffic control (horses, wagons, and the newly created automobiles), the city first had to obtain state permission through a special act, or general law of local application. 

It was not uncommon in Florida for more than 2,000 special acts to be filed in a session during this era.

In the early 1900s, however, states began to adopt “Home Rule” provisions whereby municipalities and counties were allowed to enact ordinances at the local level without state “blessing” – or without the enactment of special acts, general laws of local application, or similar measures.

In Florida, Home Rule language was proposed in the 1968 Constitutional revision, and was adopted by the people. The Legislature adopted the Home Rule Powers Act in 1973. The Florida Constitution states in Article VIII, Section 2(b) for municipalities:

“Municipalities shall have governmental, corporate and proprietary powers to enable them to conduct municipal government, perform municipal functions and render municipal services, and may exercise power for municipal purposes except as otherwise provided by law.”

These powers do not extend to fiscal Home Rule: the state reserves all taxing authority unto itself.

The ability to establish its form of government through its charter, and to then enact ordinances, codes, plans and resolutions, without prior state approval, is a tremendous authority. To further be able to enforce them “at home” and to make necessary changes as a municipality grows is a great reflection of the trust that citizens have in their respective city leaders.

Of course, municipal laws cannot conflict with state or federal laws. For most of Florida’s 412 municipalities, Home Rule powers ensure the counties and municipalities are effectively and efficiently providing for the wishes of their citizens.

Over the past few years, the Florida Legislature has attacked the Home Rule authority of local governing bodies. This year will likely be no different.

Living up to its reputation as the most dangerous 60-days in Florida, a flurry of “post-pandemic” bills can be anticipated to continue the steady erosion of the Home Rule authority of Florida’s municipalities and counties. 

The most precious powers a local government in Florida has are its Home Rule powers. However, the state continues to enact new laws to impede the ability of locally elected leaders from enacting ordinances and codes, fundamental to governance of municipalities and counties. 

About the Author

- Robert Weinroth is a 27 year resident of Boca Raton where he is an attorney, businessman, former member of the City Council (where he served for four years) and currently serves as an elected member of the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners. Commissioner Weinroth went to Boston’s Northeastern University where he earned a BSBA in Management. He went on to earn his Juris Doctor at New England School of Law. He is admitted to practice law in Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey and the Supreme Court of the United States. Weinroth served as president and general counsel of Freedom Medical Services Inc, an accredited medical supply company in Boca Raton. FREEDOMED® represented the realization of an entrepreneurial dream. Weinroth, and his wife Pamela operated the company for 16 years, eventually selling the business in 2016. Weinroth takes great pride in his past work as a volunteer Guardian ad Litem for the 15th Judicial Circuit, advocating for the needs of abused and neglected children deemed dependent by the Court. After serving on multiple community boards and committees, Weinroth was elected to the Boca Raton City Council in 2014. During his tenure, he served as CRA Vice-chair and Deputy Mayor and was appointed to a number of county boards including the Boca Raton Airport Authority, the Palm Tran Service Board, the Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency, the Treasure Coast Planning Council and was elected a board member of the Palm Beach County League of Cities. Commissioner Weinroth serves as County Vice-Mayor and has been appointed Chair of the Solid Waste Authority, a board member of the PBC Transportation Planning Agency, and alternate representative on the Treasure Coast Planning Agency and several other county and regional boards. Robert, Pamela and their two dogs, Sierra and Siggy, are proud to call Boca Raton home.

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