by Erin Tou, Planning Undergraduate, Cornell University


Municipalities can be classified into two categories: cities governed under Dillon’s rule and those governed under home rule charters. Under Dillon’s rule—commonly known as general law—municipal and county power is diminished and the state is assumed to hold all non-federal power. This means that the state government controls local government structure and dictates all funding allocations and procedures.

Conversely, home rule transfers power from the state to the local level, thus granting local governments greater autonomy. In California, all municipalities are granted some degree of home rule, but only cities with home rule charters have additional home rule authority over local elections and other municipal affairs.  

Home rule was birthed from the idea that municipalities have a deeper understanding of local problems, and thus are better equipped to respond to concerns. Bringing legislative decisions down to the local level provides opportunities for civic engagement and gives residents greater control over government. This governance structure has additionally been lauded for expediting the decision-making process for municipal affairs by allowing cities to bypass approval from state legislature.

Despite its many positives, it is not to say that home rule is not without disadvantages. One of the shortcomings of home rule is the lack of regional cohesion. Since municipalities are not bound by a common governing body, regional planning becomes more difficult and could potentially be hindered by uncooperative local governments. There are also challenges to distinguishing between matters that fall under state jurisdiction versus local jurisdiction, as home rule charters can only be applied to situations that have no impact beyond municipal boundaries. Regardless, home rule offers an alternative to traditional top-down governance, allowing locals to exercise more control over the future of their communities.


Ballotpedia. (2015). Chartered local government. Retrieved from https://ballotpedia.org/Chartered_local_government#tab=States_that_allow_charter_municipalities

League of California Cities. (2007). History of municipal home rule. Retrieved from http://www.cacities.org/Resources-Documents/Resources-Section/Charter-Cities/History-of-Municipal-Home-Rule-2

National League of Cities. (2016). Local government authority. Retrieved from http://www.nlc.org/local-government-authority

Stroud, B. A. (2014, March 1). Preserving home rule: the text, purpose, and political theory of California’s municipal affairs clause. Pepperdine Law Review, 41(3). Retrieved from http://heinonline.org.proxy.library.cornell.edu/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/pepplr41&start_page=587&collection=journals&id=613