REVIEWING GOVERNING: Referendum questions needn’t be confusing

Voters will have plenty to consider when they go to the polls Nov. 7, with two referendum questions and two sets of study commissioners to elect.

Voters may decide whether to elect a panel of seven charter commissioners to study the city charter. If it does, the commission will take the following nine months to arrive at a recommendation for a vote in the general election of November 2018.

Or, the voters may select seven members to form a government study commission, which will examine the benefits of the state Home Rule Law.

“It doesn’t need to be too complicated for voters,” said Forrest Lehman, executive director of the Lycoming County Voter Services, who is preparing the ballot.

“Voters can choose one or both, or reject one or both,” he said. “If they reject the referendums, government structure remains the same.”

While voters are deciding on one or both of the referendums, a commission for any chosen path to study would be elected the same day.

Under the state Third Class City law, four forms of government exist: strong mayor-council, council-manager, commission and weak mayor-council. A strong mayor-council form has existed in Williamsport since the early 1970s.

That’s the main reason for seeking change, according to Council President Jonathan Williamson and Councilman Randall J. Allison, vice president. They are two drivers of the referendum that was approved by council June 22.

A timely ordinance

Each said they believed it is timely in the city political election cycle to introduce the ordinance.

“It’s not about replacing a city chief executive but rather giving voters that choice,” said Ed Fosnaught, representing the Governor’s Center for Government Policy.

Cities are fraught with tension whenever the mayor of a city faces a referendum that may alter or limit his or her power, Fosnaught said.

The power rests with the registered voter, he said.

“Should the voters not want a change, the mayor finishes his third term, which ends in 2019, and there would be no disruption of that cycle,” he said.

Although council leadership said the time is right, a political pundit suspects something is amiss.

“Putting it in the hands of the electorate means they believe something isn’t working right and needs to be fixed,” said Dr. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs.

“It has to be something about the current system you don’t like and the problem clearly identified,” Madonna said.

Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said as much.

He told the Sun-Gazette the referendums are a political ploy to oust him.

But Campana not long ago showed interest in serving as a superintendent at an area school district, a position he said could result in a larger salary.

An incomplete investigation into alleged questionable expense receipts the mayor turned in during 2015 and 2016 remains in the air.

During that time, Lycoming County District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt’s office forwarded the report to the state attorney general after questioning their validity.

In other internal turmoil, council was critical of Campana’s decision to allow a former city police chief to remain employed for a year and that the mayor unilaterally decided to award a contract for the purchase of banners to be hung downtown.

“We’ve been getting inquiries, queries and questions from constituents and taxpayers regarding what perhaps might be the best form of government and how they could have input in that,” said Allison, who is seeking re-election in November to his council position.

Williamson said such questions pre-dated his time on council, or 2008.

Let the people decide

Both councilmen have denied that they were cheerleaders for any particular kind of governance, but said they tend to lean toward a study of a manager-council form. In that form, an administrator would focus on the daily operations at City Hall.

Allison, though, said it’s high time to let the people decide.

“I came to the conclusion it was time to review forms of government since the last change occurred in the early 1970s,” he said. Allison also affirmed he would be happy with whomever and whatever referendum(s) voters picked.

Campana said he doesn’t believe their excuses for introducing the referendum.

“The questions are political in nature and not at all in the best interest of the taxpayers,” Campana said.

He also distanced himself from directly answering whether he wanted to be mayor again.

Campana said he would consider running for a fourth term, but is critical of a possible city manager-council style of government, which he assumes the majority of council favor.

“Hiring a manager would cost taxpayers more than the $70,000 salary I get,” he said, adding he doubles as public safety director, which is a defunct paid title that once provided a former city employee a salary of $100,000 a year.