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Preparing for the Polls — Part 4 : Considering the Council-Manager Option

When home computers were introduced in the mid-80s, they ran on a computer operating system called DOS. The owner of a home computer was limited if they did not understand this seemingly foreign language that they had to deal with. In 1991, a small publishing company named IDB came out with a book entitled, “DOS for Dummies.” It spawned an entire genre of hundreds of such books, for those who found themselves unable to navigate complex areas without some simple, down-home explanations.

In that same spirit, this is an attempt at “Williamsport Government Ballot Issue for Dummies.” Evidence of the confusion is found in the comment section of an article in the local newspaper. A man thought the proposals for change in the city government amounted to “a modest adjustment.” I doubt if any member of the British Parliament stood up in 1776 after receiving a copy of the Declaration of Independence and declared it “a modest adjustment.” Any change of government has a radical and far-reaching impact. Here is the reason why —

“What exactly will be on the ballot in November concerning the future of Williamsport city government?”
Two issues require a yes/no vote. One states, “Shall a council-member plan of the Optional Third-Class City Charter Law providing for seven council members to be elected at large be adopted by the City of Williamsport?” The other states, “Shall the Home Rule Charter, contained in the report dated September 4, 2018, of the Government Study Commission, prepared in accordance with the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law, be adopted by the City of Williamsport?”

“Wow! Tough to figure these out, but if I want to vote for change, can I vote ‘yes’ for both of them?”
Of course, but keep in mind these are two very different proposals. Both cannot be enacted. As noted last week, if both receive a majority vote from the electorate, it will not settle the issue, but undoubtedly result in resolution through the courts.
“So, what is the difference between the two ballot questions?”

It is easier to start with how they are similar. Though the home-rule option does not state so precisely, both propose a council-led (without a mayor) form of government.
“What is the main idea behind this thing called a ‘council-member plan?’”

Essentially, it is a municipal government presided by a seven-member board. Instead of a mayor, the council appoints a city administrator or manager who is responsible for the daily administration and operation of the affairs of the city and departments. This is why the option is better termed “council-manager,” although this is not how it will appear on the ballot.
“Sounds like that would make things run smoother. What’s so bad about this idea?”

Bad might be too strong a word, but what this system lacks is checks and balances. If all the authority is wielded by seven individuals who make all the decisions, well, as the saying goes, who watches the watchers? Going back to the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the US Constitution, the foundation of American government has been a system of checks and balances. This was the idea behind the three divisions of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, and even the legislative branch was set up as a bi-cameral legislature with a Senate and House of Representatives. Along with the United States, only a handful of countries in the entire world have not had a change in government in the past century, and all of them have a checks-and-balance form of government. Not surprisingly, these same countries have also enjoyed the most freedoms, the best economic development, and the highest quality of life. Checks and balances in government at every level help keep those in authority from swinging too far in one direction or the other.

Next week, the Q/As will discuss the complex Home Rule option on the November ballot.

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