New charter might not specify departments

The Altoona Government Study Commission on Monday informally agreed to write a charter that does not designate specific city departments, except as required by state law.

Not specifying the departments in imitation of the City of Farrell’s charter would allow Altoona City Council maximum flexibility in meeting future challenges impossible to foresee, according to Richard Fiore, vice chairman of the commission.

It would allow council to “define, create and abolish” departments as it saw fit for maximum efficiency, he said.

It’s best to say the least, and not to micromanage, said commissioner Dave Duncan.

Commissioner Richard Flarend had misgivings.

“I don’t necessarily think flexibility for flexibility’s sake” is a good thing, Flarend said.

After all, the purpose of a charter is to set out a governmental plan, he said.

If ultimate flexibility is the goal, why not just omit the charter and “let the mayor, council and the manager duke it out?” he asked rhetorically.

“Without any kind of bounds, I’m afraid where that would go,” he said. “I want to make sure we not cause huge problems down the road.”

But eliminating flexibility could mean you eliminate the possibility of the city doing “exciting things,” said commissioner Bev Green.

The challenge is to find the right balance between memorializing structures in the charter and trusting that future mayors, councils and managers will make the right calls in putting in the specifics, Fiore said.

Council will put in those specifics – bridging the gap between the outline of the charter and the actual governing structure – though creation of a new administrative code, Fiore said.

The charter’s outline is more permanent, because to change it requires a referendum.

The administrative code is more fluid, because to change it requires only a new ordinance.

In a couple instances, the city has no choice: state law requires municipalities that handle subdivision ordinances to have a planning agency and those that have zoning ordinances to have a zoning hearing board, said solicitor Larry Clapper.

The commission agreed to one change in the departmental segment it plans to adopt from the Farrell charter.

That change allows the city manager to become director of specific departments.

The Altoona charter will only allow such a takeover to be temporary, on the suggestion of commissioner Bob Kutz, who fears that an unqualified manager would end up in charge of the Police or Fire departments.

Current Interim City Manager Omar Strohm heads two specific departments, although those are finance and personnel – which he took over before becoming manager.

The city currently operates under the Third Class City Code, which requires a police department, a city engineer and streets department, a city clerk and public affairs office, a controller, a finance office and a parks department and gives an option for a manager and fire department.

While the City of Easton’s charter provided a good outline for a full-time mayoral office here, Farrell’s is a “simple, easy to understand blueprint” for much of the rest, Fiore said.

“Trust your leaders, give them an outline in which to work,” Duncan said. “That’s as good as it gets.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.