Friday, April 18, 2008

Public Reacts to Home Rule Charter

Formed in November 2006 by ballot initiative with the purpose of studying and considering changes to the structure of County government, the Lancaster County Government Study Commission has finalized a draft of what is called a Home Rule Charter.

The process of "Home Rule" allows Counties to make certain changes to their form of governance in order to make it more responsive to the people it is intended to serve.

After months of deliberations, the Commission has completed a Charter for the County, with a number of important changes.

Those changes, which would have to be approved by the voters on November 4, 2008, include the following:

First, it would increase the number of County Commissioners from three to five. The Commission feels that doing so will "increase representative government and accountability."

One of the five Commissioner seats would be reserved for a member of the minority political party.

Second, it would create the position of a County Executive (or County Administrator), who would oversee all administrative functions of County government. Such an individual would be appointed and can only be removed by a supermajority vote (four of the five) Commissioners.

Third, it provides for citizen initiative, under which a resolution can be placed before the Commissioners for a vote if 1,000 county residents sign a petition asking that it be considered.

Fourth, it consolidates the offices of Register of Wills, Prothonotary, and Clerk of Courts into a single position: the Clerk of Judicial Records. It also eliminates the two Jury Commissioners.

Fifth, it establishes an Office of Management and Budget under the direction of the County Executive and strengthens the Controller's fiscal watchdog role.

Sixth, it establishes a nonpartisan Board of Elections composed of two Republicans, two Democrats, and one Independent.

Finally, it encourages regional cooperation by establishing a "Municipal Conference."

The Study Commission held the first of three public hearings on the finalized draft of the Home Rule Charter at the Farm & Home Center, Thursday night. About 35 persons attended the discussion, which lasted a little over 2 hours.

Public reaction to the proposal was mixed.

Bernie Gordon of Manheim Township said that the entire process appeared to arise from dissatisfaction with recent County Commissioners and expressed skepticism that the Commission's well-meaning attempts to fix perceived deficits by writing processes into the Charter is adding much ability to do anything that the citizens cannot accomplish currently.

He also said, "I listen with some dismay to the idea of an appointed executive. Government is a position of trust... I think it violates the trust that the electoral process gives. An appointed official does not have to respond or does not have to be responsive to the electorate... This removes it too far from the public; it removes it too far from accountability."

"Government is the electorate," he said. "Too often, we've had a top-down attitude."

Commission member Bill Saylor explained, "The election of a county executive would be a popularity contest. And we wanted to expand it so you could do a nationwide search - someone who's got some degrees in government or business management. We're not saying that someone from Lancaster County couldn't be the executive officer, but it gives us greater flexibility in looking for the best possible officer."

Members Heidi Wheaton and Carol Phillips agreed with Saylor's assessment.

Referring to intermunicipal cooperation, Wheaton brought up the Enola Low-Grade rail line, saying that the County might have avoided costly litigation if it had been involved in talks with the municipalities all along.

Ken Gardner of Elizabethtown worried, "I hear you saying that this executive would be very high-priced."

"What's going to happen to our taxes?" he asked.

Commission member Greg Sahd pushed for a showing of hands in the audience as to who favored an elected county executive and who favored an appointed one.

About six hands went up for "elected."

About 20 did for "appointed."

Randy Goodling of Elizabethtown said he would like to see citizens have the ability to place questions on the ballot. As written, the Charter gives only the Commissioners this authority.

Commission member James Bednar argued that the referendum process "creates total chaos," and said, "look at what's happening in California."

The Government Study Commission's next public hearing is scheduled for April 29 at 7 pm at the Mt. Joy Borough Office, which is located at 21 East Main Street.

A third public hearing is scheduled for Saturday, May 3 at 9 am in the auditorium of Garden Spot Village at 433 S Kinzer Ave. in New Holland.

The current version of the Charter is only preliminary and will not be finalized until at least May 6.

Public feedback is always welcome and encouraged. You may write the Government Study Commission at P.O. Box 83480, 50 N. Duke St., Lancaster PA 17603-3480, call 717.735.9607, or e-mail