Some fear shift in power if new form of government passes

“Voters are reluctant to give up power to appointed people.”

That’s what Dr. G. Terry Madonna said when asked to review what might happen in Williamsport as a result of the Nov. 6 general election.

An expert in political matters, Madonna is director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs, a professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College and the director of its widely followed college poll.

“Gotcha,” said the political pundit, instantly grasping what was at stake.

“Historically speaking, voters want to keep the election in their own hands,” he said.

One factor going for those seeking reform is the federal mid-term elections, which may produce a higher voter turnout, he said.

Unless the mayor has been involved in a scandal and caused a ruckus, it’s less likely the switch will occur, but it could happen, Madonna said.

There is a problem, he noted, with having two questions on the ballot in the same election year, and that could result in a court challenge if both government forms are passed by the voters.

Only one form may be selected in the end, he said.

Fred Holland, an attorney and charter commission chairman, also noted how a vote for both initiatives might require what is known as a declaratory judgment action, probably filed by the city.

The process would require a judge to determine which of the two successful initiatives would prevail, Holland said.

“We would have standing to appeal that, and I suppose the home rule folks also would have that ability,” Holland said.

Any challenge to the ruling would have to be based on the belief there was an erroneous decision by the judge, he said.

“If there’s an appeal from the judge in common pleas court, it would go to the Commonwealth Court,” Madonna said.

Holland is hopeful that doesn’t have to occur.

Another city official is concerned, however, it might.

“We can say that if both questions are approved by voters in the November election, the next steps are up to the commissions to develop a solution or, if the outcome is challenged in court, the courts would likely have to make a determination as to the path forward,” said Michael Gerber, a spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development Governor’s Center for Local Government Services.

“Should anyone in Williamsport come to the center following the election to seek assistance in implementing these ballot questions, our staff will be more than willing to provide support and technical assistance,” he said.

Councilwoman Liz Miele asked the commission studying Home Rule law if it would delay putting its referendum on the ballot, but that isn’t going to happen, according to Jennifer Ayers, commission chairwoman.

“My thought is — we cross that bridge if we come to it,” Ayers said.

The state statutory interpretation allowed charter and government study on home rule to be on last November’s ballot, Ayers said, agreeing with the interpretation of the law by the county Board of Elections’ and its decision to place both questions on the ballot.

“They are two different, current and not exclusive sections of state law,” Ayers said.

Post-election possibilities

Should voters want a council-manager form of government operating under optional charter, a municipal election would happen in November 2019 and the new government would be put in place the first Monday of January 2020, Holland said.

Likewise, should the home rule government prevail, it would get started with a transitional committee forming 10 days after Nov. 6, Ayers said.

City Councilman Randall J. Allsion said whatever happens is “democracy in action.”

“The council put the matter out there and timed it so it could be a transparent public discussion about what government structure would best serve the city in coming years and decades,” Allison said. “It’s been over 40 years since we took a look at changing government,” he said.

“I favor the charter and professional manager,” said Sally Lifland, who was a candidate for council several years ago.

For Lifland, the manager system under optional charter doesn’t upset the apple cart but rather improves city government efficiency and transparency.

“It doesn’t open up a whole lot of unknowns, but it does give us a more accountable form of government,” she said. “It involves council with more oversight power and gives us a long-term professional in the city managing the city,” Lifland said.

Lifland noted how many management responsibilities needed to be handled more consistently over the long-term, and the professional manager would best accomplish that task.

Tiasha Machuga said the home rule charter would reduce the number of elected governmental officials from 10 to seven.

“That would save taxpayers three times as much in salaries, medical benefits and pensions,” Machuga said.

Under home rule charter, the city taxpayers can make amendments to fit local government and the budget, she said. “Council is part-time under home rule,” she said. “We can eliminate having to pay council health insurance,” she said.

Machuga also viewed the city manager as an individual who could act as a liaison to smooth lines of communication and accomplish projects.

Parks, budgets and attracting and retaining businesses are important to Machuga.

Former city mayor and state representative, Steven W. Cappelli, said he favors the mayor-council optional charter but did not elaborate.

Councilman Derek Slaughter didn’t give a hint as what he favored, but said voters should study the issues and be prepared to make a choice on Nov. 6.

Councilwoman Bonnie Katz said she supports retaining the strong mayor-council form of government. “Too many uncertainties exist with the council-manager form, either under optional charter or home rule charter law,” she said.

Katz said she believes voters — regardless of their views about the current mayor — need to consider that every four years, the mayor may be voted out of office and a new one installed in his or her place.

“With a manager, it might be a far less citizen-driven means of removing the chief executive of government,” Katz said.

Elimination of the election of controller and treasurer, which is permissible under home rule charter, upsets Margaret Woodring, the city controller, who said she sees value in keeping the position as an elected one.

“One of the most important reasons to me is that the taxpayers have a say in who they want in the office,” Woodring said.

“If home rule is chosen, the person chosen will be hand-picked by an in-house person and taxpayers will have no say in the matter,” she said. “Where are the checks and balances when all fiscal responsibilities are in-house?”

The controller’s office questions the finance department office and department heads on expenditures that it feels are in need of further explanation, she said.

“Who will be accountable when there is just a finance director?” Woodring asked.

“Our office is responsible for safeguarding the taxpayers’ money no matter what political affiliation they are,” Woodring said. “Taxpayers should have a voice in their city by keeping the office an elected position.”

“I think the current form of government, with an elected controller and treasurer, is working well for Williamsport,” said Nicholas Grimes, city treasurer and tax collector.

“We need to be careful to ensure that we have the proper checks and balances so taxpayer money is being spent properly. However, there are other cities that operate effectively with different structures in their finance department,” he said. “If the city would change their structure, we would need to take the time and effort to oversee a successful transition.”

Councilman Don Noviello said he voted in favor of putting the charter commission out for vote because he didn’t want to stop that democratic process.

However, he said there are some elements of preserving the status quo that would continue to benefit the city. He is concerned about the impact on checks and balances built into the executive and legislative branches of the city government, but he said it will be dependent on the voters.

“I prefer the way it is,” said Bill Hall, a former councilman and council president who ran against Campana in an unsuccessful bid for mayor.

The mayor-council system works because of its system of checks and balances, Hall said.

“It’s proven by looking at the history of the two branches of government accomplishing, building, creating and preserving the quality of life in the city over the years,” he said.

Besides the elimination of certain checks and balances, Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said he is concerned that a “small group of individuals” has the potential to cause “adverse” effects on the city.

“I believe our process has been working for many, many years and continues to work in a positive fashion, especially when comparing ourselves to cities with home rule,” he said, saying some of those cities are having financial woes and higher crime.

“We are a business and are treating the city like a business,” Campana said. “I am also concerned about potential ideas the home rule supporters have that could stifle business, such as potentially higher taxes.”

“When something isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it,” said Stephen Poorman, a certified management consultant from Lock Haven, which has a manager.

“Those who lobby for change, may simply want more power,” he said. “They may enjoy telling a city manager, who is not elected by voters, what they think is in your best interest.”