Study commission could vote Dec. 2

Members of the city’s Government Study Commission agreed Monday they’ll be ready to vote at their Dec. 2 meeting on whether to recommend home rule.

“I think we’ve pretty much heard it all,” commissioner Bob Kutz said. “And I think we’ve all pretty much decided.”

Kutz didn’t say how he’s decided, but the tenor of discussion since the commission started meeting in June indicates a positive recommendation.

If a majority of the seven members approve, the group would write a home rule charter, which would go before the voters in a referendum.

If that happens, the commission might have a selling job, according to City Councilman Bruce Kelley, whom the commission interviewed Monday.

One of the main incentives for home rule will be that it will allow the city to continue to operate without tax caps, even if it exits the state’s Act 47 distress program, as officials say they want to do.

But taxes are unpopular.

So council members may need to talk about the homicide in the city last week, fires that can burn out of control with houses so close together and the hassle of driving on streets that aren’t plowed quickly after snowstorms, reminding voters that the city needs to maintain staffing in the Police, Fire and Streets Departments, according to Kelley.

“We’re fortunate,” he said. “But it wouldn’t take much to let the lid off and [for crime] to spiral out of control.”

It can happen with just a little more crime or blight, according to Kelley, citing the “broken windows theory” of policing.

“When the town starts to look rough, good people move out and bad people move in,” he said.

The home rule law not only gives the city the means to eliminate tax caps, it makes such elimination mandatory, according to city solicitor Larry Clapper, the commission’s other interviewee on Monday.

That was established by a Commonwealth Court ruling, and prevails despite some home rule charters that set caps, he said.

The long-term solution, however, is not within the commission’s or City Council’s power, according to Kelley,

That must come from state government, in the form of renovating a municipal setup that is massively inefficient, not least because it has the absurdly high number of 2,563 municipalities, according to Kelley.

Municipalities are highly parochial, but when your house is on fire, you’ve been robbed or your street is deep in snow, you don’t care what name is on the vehicle bringing help, he said.

While it’s technically a peripheral home rule issue, changing the “form” of government to strong mayor-council-manager, rather than weak mayor-council-strong manager would help the city have a stronger lobbying voice in Harrisburg to achieve the kind of changes beneficial to third-class cities, said Kelley, reflecting what seems to be a growing belief among commission members and those they are interacting with.

Echoing former Mayor Wayne Hippo, Kelley talked about Altoona officials sitting “at the kids table on Thanksgiving,” compared to full-time mayors who can make themselves known to influential people in other cities and among lawmakers.

“We need to show our business cards,” when coming into contact with other mayors, Hippo joked.

Strong mayors can also interact with businesses more successfully and vice versa, Kelley said.

It might be a shame the city’s previous Government Study Commission didn’t recommend a strong mayor when the city replaced its old commission form of government in the late 1980s, Kelley said.

The city wasn’t in the mood for a strong mayor then, someone said, recalling that “flamboyant mayor” Alan Mikula had just fired popular Police Chief Peter Starr.

“It might be a worthy experiment” to try it now, Kelley said.