Lloyd Omdahl: Legislature is slowly killing home rule

The Legislature has demonstrated its inability to restrain pure power. It has been processing a bill that would prevent the citizens in Fargo from using home rule to adopt its own election rules.

Lloyd Omdahl, use online, horizontal.jpg
Lloyd Omdahl

As the principal author of home rule used by cities and counties, I have taken a proprietary interest in the development of home rule. North Dakota now has over 100 cities and around 15 counties with home rule charters.

In 1969, my graduate assistant, Dave Gipp, and I collected the charters used in other states. None of them were feasible so we designed a system that is unique to North Dakotas. It has worked well. Except the Legislature has methodically stifled its use by rendering a second judgment and prohibiting any creative action that some city or county may choose.

Unfortunately, our home rule is statutory and may be amended at any session of the Legislature. Several states have home rule in their constitutions, putting it out of reach of the meddlers in state legislatures.

Inability to restrain power

In this session, the Legislature once again demonstrated its inability to restrain pure power. It has been processing a bill that would prevent the citizens in Fargo from using home rule to adopt its own election rules.


Gov. Douglas Burgum should be appreciated for his veto of the legislative curtailment of home rule, called it an “overreach” of legislature power. Unfortunately, the bill passed both houses with veto-proof majorities, making an override of the veto possible.

None of the Fargo legislators advocated for the bill, but 18 legislators outside of Fargo sponsored the punitive action. So a compelling point must be made to these 18: “This is none of your business.”

Flexible government

Protecting the integrity of the home rule concept is important for local government. It allows cities and counties to tailor administration to fit their peculiar needs.

The model charter repeats the original legislation. Whereas cities and counties without home rule are under strict interpretation of powers, the model charter says that interpretation of home rule powers must be liberally construed.

For one thing, we have a Legislature that chooses – for its own convenience – to stick with the biennial session when cities and counties may need immediate action.

Second, the governor and the Legislature have bigger fish to fry than fooling around with peculiar problems of individual counties and cities.

One size doesn’t fit all


Third, one size does not fit all. Every city and county has a personality of its own and this individualism needs room to blossom.

The history, demography, ethnicity and diversity all vary in cities and counties and certain forms of government fit in some local governments more than others.

While cities and counties have been moving slowly toward more professional management, Minot has had a city manager for decades. And Minot prospers.

In cities with a large professional component, city managers and the commission form can survive. In this regard, Minot is unique in that academically it is more suited to a mayor-council form but it has had exceptional, flexible managers for the last 60 years.

Cities, counties are diverse

Councils are needed where cities are diverse and require opportunities for this diversity to manifest itself. This may be true about counties that have only limited representation with three and five-member commissions. Here, too, each is unique.

Home rule is important for cities and counties so they can design governmental structures best suited to their constituencies.

This brings us back to the “overreaching” Legislature that, according to Gov. Burgum, “blatantly infringes on local control.”


North Dakota friends and members of the Legislature like to tout the idea that it is a “citizen” Legislature so they have an excuse to keep meeting biennially. In the case of home rule, maybe the Legislature is too “citizen” to understand the impact of unbridled power.

In closing, the 18 sponsors need to be reminded: how Fargo wants to elect its local officials is none of your business.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.

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