The role of municipal government and constitutional law

Mar 28 2013 - 10:19pm

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Steve Curtis
Steve Curtis

"Our whole system of government is based on 'We the People,' but if we the people don't pay attention to what's going on, we have no right to bellyache or squawk when things go wrong."

-- Ronald Reagan

The sole intent of this column is to generate some discussion of basic constitutional law that engages the role of municipal government.

It is not meant to be comprehensive, but is only a summary aimed at the awareness of a community about specific governing legal issues. The researched content is drawn from the Powers and Duties Handbook of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

Cities are part of the government from which the Bill of Rights is designed to protect the public. It is important to understand these basic rights so that personal liberties are protected and so the people can protect themselves and their cities from liability claims.

The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of speech. For cities and towns this issue can be found in different areas. As a general rule, and to some extent, government can control the time, place, and manner of speech, but never the content. An example of this is found in city council meetings where the public is allowed to speak. Speakers' demeanor and allotted time may be controlled, but statements cannot be censored.

Found in the Second Amendment is the authors' guiding principle that people should come together to form governments in order to secure their rights to property, not to create an entity that would take from its own citizens that which they had worked so hard to acquire.

The Constitution's Fifth Amendment prohibits government from taking private property for public use without paying compensation.

The 14th Amendment is what applies the Bill of Rights to the states, and therefore subdivisions of the states such as cities and towns. It is also relevant to the control of land use.

Along with the Fifth Amendment, this amendment prohibits state and local governments from depriving a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, which can be either procedural or substantive.

Procedural due process is satisfied if the government gives notice of what it intends to do and allows those individuals who are affected to present the relevant facts at a hearing before an independent hearing officer or panel.

Substantive due process concerns issues like why a decision is made and the appropriateness of the government action.

Both the Utah and federal constitutions also provide that people are entitled to equal protection under the law. This has been interpreted to require that people in similar situations are given similar rights and treatment under the law.

Steve Curtis has worked as a business consultant and communication specialist. He is currently mayor of Layton. He can be reached at scurtis@laytoncity.org.

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