City group launches study

The Altoona Government Study Commission held an organizational and planning meeting Monday, launching a nine-to-18-month endeavor that could end with the city under home rule.

The seven-member group, elected in the recent primary, chose former mayor Wayne Hippo unanimously as chairman and Leonard S. Fiore construction company executive Richard Fiore vice chairman 4-3 over labor leader Bob Kutz.

The group set a schedule that calls for meetings twice a month, established a $2,000 budget for the rest of the year to cover a professional stenographer and travel expenses for consultants and planned for early learning sessions with state home rule experts and city department heads.

The group also heard Altoona solicitor Larry Clapper warn them of the pitfalls of the Sunshine and ethics laws, agreed to take more public comment than required and debated the wisdom of inviting comments on Facebook and Twitter and holding neighborhood meetings.

The group agreed to try to arrange for webcasting its meetings.

Member Dave Duncan recommended the webcasting and Facebook and Twitter presence, as “21st Century” means of communication.

Member Heather Eckels recommended neighborhood meetings to counter anger – not the commonly suspected apathy – of residents and to regain their trust – as well as to find out firsthand how local government is working.

“I’m thrilled we’re taking the position that this needs to be as open [as possible],” Hippo said.

Generally, the group needs to evaluate Altoona’s current form of government initially, to give it a basis for determining whether a move to home rule would make sense, according to Clapper.

It has nine months to recommend whether the city should move to home rule, and if that recommendation is positive, nine additional months if it wishes to draw up a home rule charter.

The charter would go to a referendum at the next election.

The group’s next meeting, set for July 1, may feature an educational visit by officials from the state Department of Community and Economic Development and possibly the Pennsylvania Economy League, which recently replaced DSI as part of the city’s Act 47 consulting team.

The meeting after that – on July 16 – may feature interviews with city department heads to find out what they believe is working under the current council-manager optional plan form of government and what obstacles they face, given the restrictions of the plan and the fallback rules of the Third Class City Code.

“I suspect this will mean a massive learning curve for everybody,” Hippo said.