Study referendum rules at ballot box

City voters Tuesday approved a referendum creating a commission to study home rule by a 2,939 to 1,345 vote.

The seven candidates they chose to fill the commission seats include a former mayor, a member of one of the city’s prominent business families, a health system executive, a labor leader and a former candidate for state representative.

“It sounds like a good, diverse group,” said new commission member Beverly M. Green, a spokeswoman for Penelec.

The mission of the group will be to look “at what we have and why it’s not working,” said Robert K. Kutz Jr., the labor leader, as president of the Blair-Bedford Central Labor Council.

Those chosen for the study commission, according to unofficial results, are Wayne Hippo, 2,735 votes; Richard F. Fiore Jr., 2,096; Heather Jo Eckels, 1,975; David Duncan, 1,926; Beverly M. Green, 1,926; Robert K. Kutz Jr., 1,813; and Richard Flarend, 1,640.

The commission will decide whether to recommend home rule, then, if so, will write a home rule charter, which could mean a change from the current council-manager form of government.

Voters would then consider that charter in another referendum.

“I’m very, very, very glad it passed,” said City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh. “I’m relieved.”

Home rule is a potential “exit strategy” for the city from its current status as an Act 47 distressed municipality, because it would allow the city to continue the relief that Act 47 provides from the state tax caps that led to its seeking the help in the first place.

It would be “tough” to get out of Act 47 without home rule, Butterbaugh said.

He’s also glad that the voters chose Hippo, a former mayor.

Hippo worked for years to keep the city out of Act 47, but recently conceded that the state system under which cities operate isn’t workable long-term.

It’s also good the voters’ decision Tuesday was overwhelming – a mandate, according to City Manager Joe Weakland, who wasn’t surprised the referendum passed, but was surprised it passed so easily.

“If it was a squeaker, the committee might be a little concerned they’re going to be doing a lot of hard work and then [it would be] voted down,” he said.

Still, that decision is not a commitment to home rule yet, said Flarend, a Penn State Altoona professor and the former candidate for state representative.

“It’s just a commitment to study the issue in a lot more depth,” he said. “I don’t think there could possibly be a negative aspect.”

Home rule would allow the city to operate more flexibly, he said.

It may not seem that much different to the “person on the street,” but there are major differences to those who have been working “under the thumb of the Third Class City Code,” Weakland said.

Even now, before the commission begins its work, Butterbaugh was looking ahead to its contingent responsibility to choose the form of government under home rule.

“I’m going to start lobbying now to keep the form of government,” he said.

He doesn’t want the city to go to the strong mayor form, one of the other options.

“[That] puts you one idiot away from financial disaster again,” he said.

The new commission does not include two candidates who are city employees – Scott Campanaro and Victor Curfman, who received 1,197 and 1,139 votes respectively.

That surprised Butterbaugh, but not Weakland, who said voters might have been “leery” of their vested interest in the outcome.

Overall, “the electorate got it right,” Butterbaugh said.

Also unsuccessful in their bids were Lori Ann Crilley with 1,438 votes and Samuel Scheinberg with 1,231 votes.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.