Easton leader touts benefits to strong mayor

The City of Easton has only half the area and 60 percent of the population of Altoona, but it has a police force nearly as big and a budget that’s bigger, according to information provided Monday by Easton Mayor Sal Panto to the Altoona Government Study Commission.

That imbalance helps illustrate why the commission needs to draw up a home rule charter that calls for a full-time strong mayor, like Panto, according to commission Chairman Wayne Hippo.

The recent economic success for Easton that Panto describes also shows that Altoona doesn’t need to fear the possibility of a strong mayor, Hippo said.

And the imbalance points to Altoona’s fiscal diet of “bread and water” – in place for so long that residents don’t realize they deserve better, Hippo said.

“[Panto] describes precisely what we say we need,” Hippo said.

As a full-time mayor, earning $80,000 a year, Panto has been able to become the “face” of the city, he told the commission.

“Every community needs a face,” he said. “That they can either hate or love.”

He’s not big on titles, but the title of mayor holds more weight with the state and federal lawmakers and the business powers he lobbies and woos than the title of council member or city manager, he said.

And in his position, he can devote the necessary time, he said, describing a trip to Washington during which he met with officials of the Department of the Interior, helping to obtain a grant critical for a $75 million project that will turn a historic silk mill that might otherwise have been demolished into housing.

“A [part-time] councilman is not going to give up two days,” he said.

As full-time mayor, he “pounds the halls” of buildings in Harrisburg that house agencies like the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Department of Conservation and Economic Resources, he said.

He’s gotten money for more police officers and $600,000 for soccer and lacrosse fields.

“In Harrisburg, they know me,” he said.

In the last seven years, the lobbying has resulted in $60 million in grants.

Hippo doesn’t want Altoona city government to live “high on the hog.”

“Just get back on a level playing field,” he said.

That includes streets that get paved on a reasonable schedule and a better-staffed police force, he said.

But Panto thinks Altoona can set up its government better than Easton has.

He’s a voting member of City Council and would prefer not to be.

He also would prefer to have total say over the employment of his second-in-command, the city administrator.

The mayor can hire the administrator, but only with approval of council, he said.

And he can’t fire the administrator unless council votes to do so by “supermajority,” he said.

A mayor should have common sense, be a “people person,” understand budgeting, not micromanage and be averse to taxing his way out of problems, he told the commission.

He recommended that the commission retain the city’s elected controller position, because it provides balance and a check.

City Controller A.C. Stickel agreed, arguing that because a controller is elected, he isn’t beholden to council or the mayor.

Hippo said he’s not sure he buys that argument, as he hasn’t detected any problem with Young Oakes & Brown, which as a hired consultant has been doing the city’s annual audit for years.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.