Summer Smiles, Grad Gifts, and Great Giveaways
- May 31, 2023
It has been decades since residents of this area have faced a ballot issue as complex and confusing as the one related to the proposed changes in Williamsport city government. Some view it as a simple question, “Do I want a change in city government or not?” Oh, were it so simple. Rather, it is
It has been decades since residents of this area have faced a ballot issue as complex and confusing as the one related to the proposed changes in Williamsport city government. Some view it as a simple question, “Do I want a change in city government or not?” Oh, were it so simple. Rather, it is more like Winston Churchill’s quote, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Our story begins in that flood year of 1972 when the Williamsport city voters rejected a commission proposal presented to them that is similar to the one that will be on the ballot this year. The result of that election was the “strong” mayor form of city government that has been in place ever since.
There are four major organizational models, with variations, among Pennsylvania’s third-class cities (technically, the term is “cities of the third class”). They are (1) strong mayor-council form, which is Williamsport’s present government structure, (2) weak mayor-council form, (3) commission form, and (4) council-manager form. This fourth option is being offered on the ballot to Williamsport voters in November.
Out of 53 cities of the third-class in Pennsylvania, only Altoona, Dubois, Lock Haven, Meadville, Oil City, and Titusville have a council-manager form of government. The primary feature of this form is that there is no mayor — all authority is lodged with the city council. A city manager or administrator is hired by the city council and is responsible for executing the ordinances of the council. Beyond this, the manager hires and fires department heads and subordinates.
Now, here is where it gets interesting. There is a second option on the November ballot, which concerns Home Rule. This is the wild-card option for all municipalities in Pennsylvania (counties, cities, boroughs, and townships), which is government by a Home Rule Charter. “Home rule” is exactly what it sounds like. It is almost like drafting up a local constitution — a charter is drafted, adopted, and amended by the voters in the municipality, which sets up the government structure and outlines its authority and its limitations. It is customized government; virtually anything goes that is not denied by the state constitution, the General Assembly, or the charter itself. Home rule provides local control. It gives the municipal government the ability to craft ordinances and make decisions based on local needs, rather than having to follow a one-size-fits-all state code that’s decided by state legislators. Almost all the larger cities such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, Johnstown, etc., are governed by Home Rule Charter.
Now, cutting to the chase here, there is an obvious problem. There are two very different proposals being presented on the November ballot for Williamsport voters, which actually will offer three options. One would be for a council-manager form of government, a second would be for a home rule charter, and the third would be to say “no” to both of these, which is a vote for the status quo.
If the council-manager option gets a majority vote, and the home rule does not, then the wheels will be put in motion to initiate it. The opposite is also true, should home rule get a majority and council-manager does not, then it will be implemented. But it is very possible that both of these proposals could receive a majority vote from the electorate. What happens then? A person cannot go east and west at the same time, and the city cannot have two completely different systems of government.
No one is exactly sure what would happen if both proposals would pass, but it would undoubtedly end up in the courts to decide. The weirdest possible scenario would be if both options received a majority of voters but the vote tally was exactly tied. In this case, the Board of Elections would put the names in a hat, pull one out, and it will become the future government of the City of Williamsport.
In coming weeks, we will examine each of these three options with the pros and cons of each. Even if you are not a Williamsport voter, you probably know one, and providing some guidance to them would be invaluable. This is because this is not just a Williamsport matter — it impacts the entire region. The city is the county seat and is also the county engine. Literally, as Williamsport goes, so goes our whole area. Whatever happens on November 6th, it will impact us all.
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