Group hears split views

At a city Government Study Commission meeting Tuesday, spectator Bob Gutshall talked about a conversation he had recently in Harrisburg with a planning official about the Study Commission’s recent focus on the possibility of adopting a strong mayor form of government, as part of a move to home rule.

“Make sure you pick the right one,” the official said, tongue-in-cheek, to Gutshall, chairman of the Altoona Planning Commission.

That warning echoed the cautions expressed at Tuesday’s meeting by Reading city clerk Linda Kelleher, whom the commission interviewed, along with former Reading mayor Tom McMahon – both separately by conference call – and former Lebanon mayor Bob Anspach, in person.

Picking the right one has been a problem for Reading since it went to home rule in 1996, according to Kelleher.

The first mayor was a good one, cooperating with City Council, Kelleher said.

“It’s been downhill ever since,” she said, numbering McMahon among the disappointments, largely because “he threw us into Act 47.”

One problem has been a home rule charter that allowed things to become “very messy,” she said.

It gives both the mayor and the mayor’s managing director – whom the mayor chooses – authority over hiring, causing “confusion,” she said.

It calls for the mayor to submit his proposed budget to council by Nov. 1 and the city to adopt the budget by Dec. 15 – a schedule that didn’t allow council time to digest the plan, when the mayor chooses not to give prior notice, she said.

That schedule has created difficulties when it comes down to the adoption deadline without agreement between council, which should approve the budget, and the mayor, who can veto it – potentially resulting in a spending plan that isn’t balanced or a reversion to the mayor’s original proposal, she said.

A referendum eased the problem by moving the submission deadline to Oct. 1, she said.

Still, the citizens wanted a strong mayor, according to Kelleher, who said Reading made two previous attempts at home rule, but the voters rejected those.

Both would have changed the old commission form – which people regarded as “in some ways corrupt” – to a council-manager form, similar to Altoona’s, she said.

The third study commission wanted a change to home rule “so badly it offered up the strong mayor to get it through,” she said.

If a council-manager form of government were presented to the voters again, she’s not sure it would be rejected, Kelleher said.

Although she criticized McMahon for pushing the city into Act 47 recently, that program has helped by straightening out finance department issues, streamlining the police department – “got rid of a lot of dead weight” through retirements, while modernizing its techniques – and hiring talented employees, Kelleher said.

McMahon saw himself as the CEO, “the outside guy,” seeking best practices from elsewhere, working with developers, the media and the Pennsylvania Municipal League.

Similarly, in Lebanon, the mayor is the chief executive, running all the departments, in charge of hirings, according to Anspach.

Council is legislative, controlling “the purse strings” through the budget – “which every good mayor realizes,” Anspach said.

It’s important the parties talk to one another, he said.

It’s also important that politics be put aside for the benefit of the community, he said.

The mayor hires a deputy – subject to Council veto – who is the “greater among equals” with the other department heads and takes care of operations.

“I did the handshaking,” the lobbying, the plugging for grants, the conferencing with officials, Anspach said.

As a full-time mayor, he didn’t need to worry – like Altoona’s mayor and councilmen must – about begging off his regular job or taking vacation to do those things.

Nor did he need to go out of his proper sphere, as a “technocrat” city manager would need to do, in the same role, he said.