Since 1968, the Pennsylvania Constitution has permitted municipalities to adopt home rule charters. About 65 municipalities now have home rule charters, but when Mt. Lebanon adopted a charter in January 1975, we were one of the first in the state to do so.
Home rule charters are like local “constitutions.” Municipalities with charters still need to comply with local and federal laws and state law pertaining to home rule municipalities, but they have more control over their destinies. While a township or borough without home rule can act only where authorized by the state constitution, home rule municipalities can act anywhere except where state law specifically limits them.
“The advantage of home rule is that it that it allows the community to take into account its own specific issues and concerns,” says Mt. Lebanon Municipal Manager Steve Feller.
Our home rule charter deals with things such as the timing of the fiscal year, who can run for commissioner, how the commission functions, and how vacancies will be filled. It specifies how public meetings will be advertised and conducted, deals with citizens’ rights to be heard, identifies specific types of actions that require passage of an ordinance, and sets forth how ordinances are passed and recorded. It also defines the structure and responsibilities of municipal officials including the treasurer, the manager, the various administrative department heads, as well as consultants, such as the engineer and solicitor.
The charter did not make a radical difference in the way Mt. Lebanon was organized and operated, but there were some significant changes, including: requiring a professional CPA firm hired by the Commission to conduct an annual audit; provisions for initiative and referendum; expansion of the elected treasurer’s responsibilities; a mandatory five-year capital expenditures program; criteria for removing a commissioner; implementation of several new codes, and a provision that requires a vote of four out of five commissioners to incur debt and mandates voter approval of debt that exceeds 2½ times the municipality’s annual revenue.
The charter has served Mt. Lebanon well—since 1975 it has been amended only five times. But the last time it was amended by referendum was almost 20 years ago, in 1994, when voters approved a change that requires real estate taxes to be lowered to balance out increases in property tax. It clearly is time to take a fresh look at our “constitution” to ensure that like other important document such as the zoning ordinance or comprehensive plan, the charter meets the needs of today’s residents and will continue to serve the community well for the next 10 or 20 years.
“There is a general belief that democracy is more easily realized when government activities are kept closest to the people,” Feller says.
Working toward that goal, a seven-member committee has been meeting since June 2012 to review the charter. Committee members are Bill Matthews, chair; Geoff Hurd, Kevin Kearns, Mary Larsen, Nancy Carroll, Chris Callihane and Bradley Kitlowski.
Mary Larsen, Washington Road, who served on the original home rule charter committee and later became a Mt. Lebanon Commissioner, is just as serious about the task now as she was nearly 40 years ago. The current ad hoc committee has applied a sort of litmus test to each chapter, she says: “In just about everything we looked at, the term ‘good governance’ came up—“Is this good governance?”
By the end of 2013, the committee will submit a report to the Mt. Lebanon Commission, perhaps recommending some changes in the charter. But their immediate objective is to get public input on several focus areas they have identified that might need changing. They will hold a public meeting to discuss the focus areas this month—Wednesday, May 15, at 7 p.m. in the commission chambers of the municipal building.
The focus areas are: gender neutral language; methods of giving public notice; methods of keeping official records; procedures required to issue debt; whether the municipal treasurer should be appointed or elected, and the amount by which tax rates can be increased at the Commission’s discretion.
After receiving public input, the committee will submit a report to Mt. Lebanon Commission, which will likely include several recommendations. If the commissioners agree with the recommendation, they would pass ordinances amending the document and work with the county elections bureau to word the ballot question or questions. Voters would need to accept or reject the changes in a referendum.
The committee has talked extensively about some of the possible changes. For instance, the charter currently requires municipal legal notices be advertised for five days in a local newspaper. Since technology now affords other means of communication, the committee is considering the implications of permitting electronic methods of advertising.
Another discussion centers on the possibility of further clarifying the sorts of expenses that, if not anticipated when the budget is passed in December, would require the passage of a mid-year budget amendment.
The committee also is evaluating the impact of eliminating the requirement that the commission must reduce property tax to offset any increase in earned income tax.
“None of us have come to a consensus on anything,” says Larsen. “We need to incorporate public opinion on the issues before we can move forward with any recommendations.”
The committee, originally convened for one year, has received an extension from the commission, so it can gather ample public input and prepare a thorough report. It is likely that Mt. Lebanon voters would have the opportunity to vote on any proposed changes in the May 2014 primary election.
To learn more about the charter and possible revisions, view the existing home rule charter by clicking on “public documents” on the left menu of the municipal homepage, www.mtlebanon.org. You can review the ad hoc committee’s agendas and minutes by clicking on “government,” “boards and authorities” at the top of the same page.
If you can’t attend the May 15 meeting but would like to share your comments or concerns, please contact Municipal Manager Steve Feller, who is the staff liaison to the committee, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-343-3620.