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Home Rule Charter features concepts driven by citizens

Giving more power to people and less to politicians.

That’s the whole premise behind the home rule charter produced by the Williamsport Government Study Commission.

“We wanted a government that is more accountable to the citizens, flexible in nature and can adjust to the future needs of the city,” said Jennifer Ayers, an attorney and chairwoman of the commission.

Joining Ayers on the commission were: Matilda Noviello, Alison D. Hirsch, Jon Mackey, Ardis Mason, Mark Stephens and Margaret Tupper.

The commission recommended a council-manager and home rule charter, such as that in place in 22 other third-class cities.

“We also wanted a more broad-based look at the city government,” Ayers said. It is a charter that expands the ability of people to influence how they are governed, she said.

Taxpayers deserve and require a government that is honest, efficient, accountable and transparent, according to the charter preamble.

For example, people can put an agenda item on the council meeting by petition and have power to initiate ordinances or repeal laws previously enacted. If council fails to act, an individual can put the issue on the ballot through petitions by at least 5 percent of the total voters in the last municipal election.

Such progressive thinking isn’t unchartered waters.

Since the time of the Tammany Hall corruption after the Civil War and the Boss Tweeds of the world, progressive movements involving the governed wanting more decision-making ability, the concept of home rule has evolved.

In 1972, city governments throughout Pennsylvania could adopt home rule charters.

“Home rule has sought to give municipal governments more autonomy and to free them from a system that required them to get permission from the state Legislature to make changes in their local government,” Hirsch said.

Under the proposed charter, a city manager would operate daily functions. He or she would be appointed by City Council after a nomination is received from the mayor.

The manager has to live in the city no later than one year after his or her appointment, the charter states.

The manager will serve as the chief administrative and operating officer of the city, while a mayor would be elected at large but serve primarily in an economic development role.

And, the city controller and treasurer would be hired and placed under a financial department overseen by a director.

These two positions are elected under the strong mayor-council form used now.

Streamlining positions that duplicate work may add efficiency and lower costs in the long run, Hirsch said.

The charter is specific as to the roles of individuals in government.

Council, for example, would continue to consist of seven members, including the mayor, and be elected at large for four-year terms that are staggered every two years.

The mayor would be a full-time position, while council would be part time. No health or retirement benefits would be provided to part-time employees or elected officials.

No elected official would be allowed to hold any other paid position within the city or another governmental entity during his term in office, or any other paid city position or position on a city authority or board within one year of leaving office.

“We thought that would avoid any conflicts of interest,” Hirsch said.

Council would be responsible for providing a city website that is functioning and transparent, with information about meetings, procedures and budget.

Williamsport was without a functional organizational structure, according to Tupper.

“No one knew who answered to whom and there was evidence from employees the organizational structure was missing or ignored,” she said.

The solicitor is to be appointed by council, and can be an individual, partnership or law firm.

The engineer must be a state registered professional engineer and may be an engineering firm. The engineer works under the direction of the manager.

In terms of budget, council will order an outside audit at lease once a year. The manager submits the annual budget, and a five-year capital report.

However, the mayor is to publish a plain-language summary of the budget to be published along with the budget.

Tax-structure changes are available under the charter but the commission isn’t bent on initiating them as a first means of business, according to Hirsch.

The charter allows for the reduction of property taxes in favor of increasing earned income taxes, she said.

“We’re not getting too much into that until the government structure is in place,” she said.

Ayers said the flexible factor is the charter can be amended as needed.

“It’s not as onerous a process as changing optional third-class city law,” she said.

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