Commission debates reducing number of council members
Government Study Commission member Bob Kutz lacked the numbers Monday to reduce the number of City Council members from seven to five.
At a commission meeting where members discussed how the home rule charter they’re writing should define the roles of mayor, city manager and council, Kutz argued that shrinking council to five would shrink the problem of attracting candidates to run.
“There hasn’t been a full slate for God knows how many years,” Kutz said.
Such ballot openings encourages “last-minute” decisions to run by potential candidates, which ultimately reduces the stature of council members, he said.
“Being on council doesn’t carry the same weight” it did years ago, he said.
Reducing the number of council members to five would make council elections more competitive, helping guarantee those who get elected will be active and engaged, said commission member Richard Flarend.
“You get rid of the non-serious candidate,” Flarend said.
Voters too would be more engaged, he said.
“As population decreases, representation should decrease,” added commission member Dave Duncan.
Going to five would only bring council back to the number that preceded the creation of the current form around 1990, he said.
That old form served the city well for 30 years, he said.
The arguments for reduction failed to persuade any of the four other commission members.
Reducing the number to five would make the strong mayor the commission plans to recommend in its charter too strong, said commission member Wayne Hippo.
Instead of needing to persuade three other council members to form a majority on any issue, the mayor would need to persuade only two, and that would be too easy, said Hippo, a former mayor himself.
The current seven council members provide a healthy diversity of opinion, said commission member Richard Fiore.
That number also creates stability – as a five-person group could shift course quickly, Fiore said.
A small council would also enable a coterie of veteran politicians to work together problematically to “run the city forever,” he said.
Reducing the number could put too great a workload on five members, said Councilman Dave Butterbaugh, who was in the audience.
Having seven means there’s usually always someone available “to put out a fire,” Butterbaugh said, speaking metaphorically.
All current council members except one have day jobs, and a bigger workload could be burdensome for them, added Councilman Bruce Kelley, also in the audience.
Commission member Heather Eckels actually suggested going the other way – taking council membership to nine.
Flarend, an advocate for the reduction, countered that the greater engagement of council members in a small council could offset the extra mayoral power that Hippo fears.
Flarend also argued that a full-time mayor could take on the extra workload created by the loss of two council members.
But those arguments
didn’t move the majority.
Eckels argued unsuccessfully for a different aspect of the pre-1990 government – district representation by council members, rather than the current representation at-large.
That could attract candidates to run who would see council service as an opportunity to improve their neighborhoods, she said.
It would also be easier to get elected, she said.
Hollidaysburg and Tyrone have district representation on their borough councils, Slusser pointed out.
Districts might be appealing if neighborhoods were being “cut out of the system,” Fiore countered. “But I don’t see evidence of disenfranchisement,” he said.
In the past, there were imbalances, as with “the Ridge Avenue club,” but the current council actually is “surprisingly well-distributed,” said city Planning Director Lee Slusser, who was in the audience.
District representation could actually reduce opportunities for potential candidates, if more than one came from the same area, Hippo said.
The current format forces council candidates to become familiar with the whole city during their election campaigns, enhancing their ability to serve, Butterbaugh said.
It might be easier to campaign in a small district, but “we don’t want sissies,” he said.
Duncan argued unsuccessfully for annual performance evaluations for the mayor.
He or she needs to be held accountable, maybe by an appointed commission, to eliminate political bias from fellow council members, Duncan said.
Evaluation could be the cure for a mayor who might otherwise do virtually nothing for four years except collect what could be a healthy salary, he said.
Elections and political pressure are all the evaluation needed, others argued.
Political pressure is powerful, Hippo said, hypothesizing a mayor who, say, wanted to privatize police, firefighting and street repairs.
If he “gets the hell kicked out of him for three or four weeks” arguing for privatizing the police, he’s surely going to back off the rest of the program, Hippo said.
Evaluations would have no clout anyway, commission member Bev Green argued, because the mayor couldn’t be fired, nor could his salary be reduced.
Meeting attendee Jan Mills proposed turning the mayoral post into a hired – rather than elected – position.
Can’t do it, Hippo said.
“Why not?” Duncan asked.
“Certain things like the Constitution,” Hippo replied.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.