Group calls for home rule

The city’s Government Study Commission Monday voted unanimously to recommend home rule, triggering its responsibility to draft a charter to put before voters.

Home rule can give city government the flexibility it needs to be creative in economic development and governance, so Altoona can get out of its long-standing fiscal funk, which culminated in its entering the state’s Act 47 distress program a year ago, according to commission members.

“The current form [council-manager, adopted around 1990 under the optional plan law], while appropriate at the time, is not so much now,” said commission Chairman Wayne Hippo, former Altoona mayor. “It’s a .22-caliber form of government in a .45-caliber world.”

The charter will largely be “boilerplate,” common to many charters, but will include sections that will reflect decisions on several major issues, according to commission Vice Chairman Richard Fiore.

Those include the “form” of government.

Since Altoona Mayor Bill Schirf spoke to the commission a couple of months ago, there’s been a swell of support for a strong mayor form.

The commission’s final pre-decision interviewee, Allentown mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Pawlowski reinforced that.

“I can’t understand why in a city this size, you don’t have a strong mayor,” said Pawlowski, who held a campaign event in town prior to his commission appearance. “At least a hybrid.”

As a strong mayor in Allentown for the last eight years – he was just reelected to a third term – he has helped that city not only avoid Act 47, but has shepherded it toward “a major renaissance,” he states in his campaign literature.

The key was devising a neighborhood investment program by which developers can get all the state tax their enterprises would pay diverted to pay debt services on their projects – a program the state has imitated with its City Revitalization and Improvement Zone program.

The Allentown version is generating $1 billion investment, he said.

Would he have been able to make it happen if he were a part-time mayor earning $400 a month, like Altoona’s mayor? Hippo asked.

“No way,” Pawlowski said.

Pawlowski encouraged the commission not to make its charter too restrictive.

It sounded good when Allentown wrote its charter to prohibit any new taxation except property levies, except by referendum, he said.

But that forced a delay in the city’s adopting the state’s local service tax, and required a herculean effort by Pawlowski to campaign for the measure, he said.

It also sounded good when Allentown wrote its charter to require that employees be residents of the city, but that requirement – coupled with salaries that can’t match those in the private sector – can make it a “tough sell” to land qualified candidates who don’t happen to live in Allentown already, he said.

He’s never known artificial restrictions in home rule charters to have “a positive effect,” he said.

Instead, they tend to stifle creativity, he said.

The Allentown charter is broad in not specifying the nature of the government organization, which has allowed him to appoint a managing director and consolidate redundant bureaus – some into Public Works, some into Parks – for efficiency, he said.

Checks and balances written into the charter help ensure against harm.

Those include provisions like a requirement for council approval on his appointment of the managing director, his own veto power – which remains a threat, although he’s never used it – and the power of council to override his veto with a difficult-to-achieve supermajority, he said.

It’s always possible for voters “to elect someone who’s a real dud,” but that’s democracy, he said.

“Leave enough flexibility in the charter for democracy to work,” Pawlowski said.

The only reservation expressed by a commission member in voting on whether to go home rule was that of Heather Eckels, who explained later that she

doesn’t like the elimination of tax caps that is a necessary part of home rule and her reservations about a strong mayor.

But she was not seeking to sail against “the wind of change,” she said. Better to set up a windmill instead, she said.

The commission canceled its December meeting and will meet next 6 p.m. Jan. 13.

Hippo urged an “aggressive” schedule, so that the commission could write a draft charter, present it a public hearing, finish the charter by June or July, then have plenty of time to educate voters and stump for referendum approval at the November 2014 general election.

Otherwise, the referendum would need to go to the spring 2015 primary, which would mean loss of momentum, aggravated by the commission’s having to disband long before the vote, which would dilute its efforts to promote approval.

The commission plans to pick one city’s charter as a basis for writing Altoona’s, then pick and choose the best parts of other cities’ charters.

“Take the best practices,” Pawlowski said.

The crafting of the charter will be largely cut-and-paste, with debate and votes reserved for the key provisions.

One provision would establish a transition team that could determine how to handle matters like the election of a strong mayor – which could take place two or even four years after approval of home rule, according to Fiore.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.