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Legal Eagles: Updated forms for charter amendments now available 

by John Phelps, League Associate General Counsel

The Legal Department here at the League often receives inquires concerning charter amendments that may be adopted by local municipal governing bodies. Because of statutory changes enacted by the General Assembly during its last two sessions, we have updated our charter amendment by ordinance forms and procedures. This article offers a general explanation of the options available under the charter amendment by ordinance statutes. Additionally, it provides contact information if you have questions on local charter amendments and on how you may obtain our forms and procedures.

The General Assembly authorizes cities to act through two types of legislation: general laws and local acts. A general law is one that applies to all units of local government, to all cities, or to all cities within a class defined by population or other criteria. A local act is legislation that applies to one city or to only a few cities. A city charter is a type of local act. G.S. 160A-1(1) defines the term "charter" as meaning the entire body of local acts currently in force applicable to a particular city and includes charter amendments by ordinance adopted under Article 5, Part 4 of Chapter 160A.

Generally, when a city decides to undertake an action for which there is no general law, or desires to modify a provision of its charter, it must seek legislative action. However, there is an exception to this general rule. G.S. Chapter 160A, Article 5, Part 4, mentioned immediately above, provides that exception. This part grants the governing body of a city limited authority to amend the city charter by ordinance in order to implement certain types of charter changes.

Charter amendments by ordinance may be initiated either by the governing body or by citizen petition. In either case, a special election may be involved. If a governing body initiates the charter amendment, during the implementation process it has two options once it has adopted the ordinance amending the charter. The governing body may make the ordinance effective only upon approval by a vote of the people. If it chooses not to make the ordinance subject to an approving vote, the ordinance is still subject to a referendum petition and, if a petition is received with the requisite number of signatures, a special election on approval of the ordinance must be held. If a charter amendment by ordinance is initiated by citizen petition, assuming the petition meets the statutory requirements, the governing body must call a special election on the proposed amendment. If the proposed amendment is approved in the election, the governing body must adopt an ordinance amending the charter so as to put the amendment into effect.

Charter amendments by ordinance are restricted to the options set out in G.S. 160A-101: the name of the municipality, the style of the corporation, the style of the governing body, the term of office of governing body members, the number of governing body members, the mode of election, the type of election, the selection of the mayor and the form of government. Any Charter amendment not authorized by G.S. 160A-101 must be accomplished by local act of the General Assembly.

The updated forms and procedures on local charter amendment by ordinance are now available here. If you have questions you may contact a member of the League’s Legal Department.