Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Home Rule Charter Wins Final Approval in 8-3 Vote; Fate Rests with Voters

The 11 members of the Lancaster County Government Study Commission voted 8-3, Tuesday afternoon, to present a finalized Home Rule Charter to Lancaster County voters in the fall.

Commission member Sam Mecum pointed out that the board has had its disagreements, but said, "The entire document is a compromise," comparing it to the drafting of the United States Constitution.

"It was messy," said Chairwoman Carol Phillips, "but then I understand that democracy is supposed to be messy."

A number of Commission members pointed out the provisional nature of the charter. "If it's not working successfully in five years, change it," said Commission member Bill Saylor from Millersville.

Commission member James Miller agreed, saying, "This charter isn't what any one of us would have sat down and crafted... but what I can say in all honesty is paramount here is the charter."

Among its changes the Charter calls for a five-member Board of County Commissioners, a strong County Administrator, consolidation of certain row offices, establishment of an Office of Management and Budget with more frequent reviews of financial information by various county officials, and a section on citizen initiative.

The Commission decided to change the title "County Executive" to "County Administrator" to avoid misperceptions about the position.

During their meeting last Saturday, the Commission also decided to strengthen the section on citizen initiative, which previously did not give residents the ability to place issues directly on the ballot, as is usually the case with initiatives.

The Charter now distinguishes between "Limited Initiative" and "Full Initiative."

"Limited Initiative" is when residents collect 1,000 signatures in favor of proposing a given ordinance. The ordinance then appears before the County Commissioners for a vote. Failure of the Commissioners to vote on the resolution results in passage by default.

In "Full Initiative," certain subjects can be placed on the ballot for a vote in the next general election if a petition is submitted containing "at least ten (10) percent of the number of voters in the County voting for the County candidate receiving the highest number of votes in the most recent Countywide, municipal general election" and the Commissioners vote not to approve it.

The subject matter of citizen initiative is limited, however. Section 6.02b of the charter states, "The power of initiative shall not extend to the current budget or capital program, to the appropriation of money under the current budget or capital program, or to the salaries of those employees of the County in collective bargaining agreements."

Section 6.03c, offering a further limitation, states that initiatives may only limit tax increases "when an increase in the rate of any tax imposed by the County for the current year exceeds ten (10) percent of that imposed during the previous year."

The three members voting against the recommendation of a Home Rule Charter, Gregory Sahd, Jim Huber, and Jim Bednar expressed their skepticism that the current structure of County government is deficient.

Jim Huber, Commission member and former County Commissioner, opined, "It is not so much the number, as the experience and qualifications, of the Commissioners [that matters]."

Bednar said, "This charter is like putting lipstick on a caterpillar and calling it a butterfly."

Disagreeing, Commission Vice-Chair John Smucker argued that the Charter will transfer power from state and county government to the people, and "put[s] into place safeguards on excessive County debt."

Phillips explained, "the charter reflects the collective thinking of many many people" and said, "I will continue to ask the people of the County to invite us into their neighborhoods and the press to get the word out so that the decision on November 5 will be an informed decision."

The finalized version of the Charter, as well as supplemental documents, meeting minutes, and interview transcripts, are available on the Study Commission's website at http://www.homeruleinfo.com/

If approved by the voters on November 5, two additional County Commissioners would be elected in November 2009 and a County Administrator would be appointed by March 2010.