RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - In the wake of a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach city building earlier this year, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney held a press conference at city hall.
"We’re just tired of waiting for the General Assembly, and frankly, enough is enough,” said the young mayor who announced hopes to ban firearms in municipal buildings.
Sally Hudson, the delegate elect from Charlottesville, hinged part of her 2019 campaign on a promise to remove a centrally located statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. Interest in removing the statue had been around for a while, but increased following an August 2017 white supremacist rally supporting the statue that left one woman, Heather Heyer, dead.
“Robert E. Lee wasn’t from Charlottesville, there was never a battle here,” said Hudson in a phone interview, noting Lee’s monument was added along with many other confederate memorials during the Jim Crow-era. “For [Charlottesville residents], moving the statues is an important public reckoning with our history.”
But both Stoney and Hudson’s hopes, as well as the hopes of municipalities across Virginia and about 35 other states, often fall on the sword of a legal precedent set over 150 years ago by Iowa Supreme Court Judge John Dillon.
Dillon’s rule is a legal theory of city authority which states no locality can establish powers not granted to them by the state Legislature, or as Dillon put it:
"Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the Legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control."
Richard Schragger, the Perre Bowen Professor at University of Virginia’s School of Law, said when Dillon first made the ruling it wasn’t unreasonable. Back then, local governments were better known for “giving away the store… and that exercise of power was fleecing the taxpayers.”
“Dillon was concerned with good government, so he wanted to restrict the power of these towns and cities,” Schragger said, noting now, through oversight and numerous other advances, localities face much more accountability.
150 years later, he and other legal scholars and civic groups interviewed for this story believe the alternative, home rule where a city has the power to make a range of laws it sees fit, is preferred.
“[Cities’] tasks today are more complicated,” Schragger said. “Some issues that should be taken care of at the local level become political footballs at the state level and that’s just a problem for good governance.”
Those complicated issues are what led the state of West Virginia to develop a first-of-its-kind pilot program in 2007 which allowed certain cities to apply for home-rule status.
Robert Bastress, a professor at the University of West Virginia’s School of Law, said back then municipalities were facing a range of issues, from revenue shortages to minor parking changes, that all required approval from legislators in Charleston.
The pilot program created a review board for cities to pitch laws to and get quick approval. He said the program started with a few cities but expanded over time. And this year a bipartisan effort saw the pilot program expanded to cover pretty much every city in the state.