BOLD ACTION: Voters wield power to determine city direction

Voters wield power to determine city direction

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Williamsport City Clerk Janice Frank, left, hands out paperwork to Magisterial District Judge Christian Frey, as Tony Nardi looks on before members of the Charter Commission were sworn in at City Hall.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette continues its annual review of the past year’s major news stories.)

Never let it be said that local elections don’t have consequences.

Those words could be no more applicable than what occurred in the outcome of the general election of Nov. 7.

Voters sent a clear message they want to see a thorough review of who governs them in the not-so-distance future.

In a pair of questions, voters elected seven charter commissioners to take up to nine months to review the city charter and recommend what government style would be best. Voters then will decide on that recommendation in the next general election later next year.

Adding a curveball to the mix this year was the emergence of Williamsport Citizens For Home Rule.

The group, led by Matilda Noviello and Alison D. Hirsch, circulated petitions and obtained the requisite amount of signatures to get a second question on the ballot, one asking voters if they wanted to see a seven-person government study commission look at home rule aspects of governance.

Either way, those who championed their causes and ran for election to be on the commissions said they are looking forward to a productive and informative year ahead.

“I am really optimistic about it because the voters sent such a clear message that it is what they want to see something happen,” said Council President Jonathan Williamson, who joined Council Vice President Randall J. Allison and Councilwoman Liz Miele to craft a question for council to review and place on the ballot.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for introspection by members of this community, both about the particular form of government, where it stands today, and what the city voters want the city to become,” Williamson said.

He said the process should remain transparent and provide input for residents.

“I think it will be an informative communitywide discussion,” Williamson said.

“The timing was right,” Allison said. “The city hadn’t reviewed the form of government since the 1972 administration of Mayor John Coder,” he said.

No matter what transpires next year, Allison said the next bold step is for the elected commissioners to approach council with their needs and budgets and to schedule meetings throughout the year, including town halls in various parts of the city to gain as much input as possible from a wide spectrum of residents.

For Miele, the opportunity to get more people engaged in the government process during off-presidential years is thrilling, because government should be for the people and by the people.

Contradicting their opinions, Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said what took place was a political ploy to give council authority over a possible council-manager style government.

“Council wants to have more decision-making authority and hold that over a city manager, a position that would cost more than a mayor’s salary,” Campana said.

Also concerned about hidden agendas in the referendum questions and outcome of the vote was Councilwoman Bonnie Katz, who was against passage of the charter commission ordinance because she believed in the strong-mayor form of government as one that has worked.

“I remain concerned about personal agendas and their impact to alter governmental forms that have proven to be effective,” Katz said.

Some social media posts on sites such as Facebook indicate her concerns are warranted.

Individuals who support Home Rule law, for example, throw their anger directly toward Campana as mayor and he might not be running again for a fourth term.

“Many don’t realize that some of the policies and programs may not be possible because of regulations or limitations placed on third-class cities … the mayor may decide not to run again, or he may … there may be mayor candidates that would be acceptable and suitable for the city to continue to remain in its present form,” Katz said.

Former City Council President Bill Hall agrees with Katz.

Hall, who ran a council race as an independent candidate, failed to gain a seat but weighed in during council meetings.

He cited the previous records of achievement by mayors, administrations and councils of the recent past are reason enough to reconsider any changes to the existing system working in this third-class city.

Meanwhile, those who favor adding home rule policy to whatever government style is desired by voters see their contribution as equally valuable in the days ahead.

“Home rule gives the residents more flexibility to effect change with the ability to introduce ordinances for consideration by the ruling party and to create a citizen bill of rights,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch is one of seven commissioners elected. “Under home rule the citizens can contribute by creating proposed policy that would be decided on by the ruling powers,” she said.

Hirsch said the meetings for the group she is on can be held inexpensively at church basements and other non-profit organizations and places that won’t require much budget money to rent space.

Hirsch, meanwhile, said she is hopeful many of the positive benefits and aspects of home rule, a type of political philosophy that is working in numerous other communities in the state, should be added to whatever the voters decide.

Home rule supporters held a meeting in December to begin to organize their thoughts and start to prepare for the year ahead, she said.