Newspaper ads, controller post questioned by city study group

The city Government Study Commission has asked its solicitor to check out the feasibility of writing a charter that includes neither a requirement to advertise ordinances in the newspaper nor to employ an elected controller.

Current law requires municipalities to advertise ordinances in a newspaper of general circulation, but home rule charters may not need to include any advertising requirements at all, officials said.

“People are fed up with the ridiculous prices,” said commission Chairman Wayne Hippo.

Maybe the city could advertise ordinances only on its website, which would cost essentially nothing, suggested commissioner Richard Flarend.

Raymond Eckenrode, Mirror general manager advertising, said the Mirror has not raised its legal advertising rates for five years.

“As with other forms of advertising, the Mirror’s legal advertising remains the irrefutable best and most cost-effective way to reach the largest number of people in our community and the only way to keep public notices truly public,” he said. “We understand the financial pressure that municipalities are under. In addition, as a community service, we upload all of our public notices at no additional charge to where they are searchable along with other public notices from around the state.”

The commission has no intention of writing a charter with no publication requirements for critical matters like ordinances, Hippo emphasized. But the website might be enough, he suggested.

“We’ll see if that works,” said Larry Clapper, the solicitor.

The Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association notes that very few people go to local government websites compared to the number of people reading a newspaper or visiting a newspaper website. In addition, the group notes that communities would face added personnel and informational technology costs to take on the job.

“There is also a strong likelihood of increased legal costs in responding to challenges by dissatisfied bidders, community members and others,” if advertisements are only on local government websites, the group said.

The commission also discussed whether to keep the seven-day minimum waiting period between introduction and adoption and the 10-day minimum waiting period between adoption and effective date for ordinances.

“I personally like having to wait [between introduction and adoption],” said City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh, a spectator at the meeting.

“The introduction [is] the real protection,” Hippo said.

Before deciding whether to keep the $25,000-a year controller post, which is a requirement of the current optional plan government, Clapper will take a look at how other home rule municipalities have dealt with it.

Among his duties, the controller reviews all purchases, after they go through two people in the finance office and before a third-party accounting firm does the annual audit, according to City Finance Director Omar Strohm, whom the commission interviewed.

There’s “redundancy,” which is “not necessarily a bad thing,” Strohm said.

Maybe the city can assign the audit firm – or a second accounting firm or a city employee – to do the purchase reviews, to eliminate the controller post, some commissioners suggested.

The city staff is more likely to get a well-qualified individual to do the work through the employee hiring process than through the controller election, Strohm said.

“You don’t need a great level of qualification to get elected,” he said.

Controllers have varied widely in the way they handled the job, from the late Stu Duncan’s frequent sniping at official practices, to Jim Carothers’ minimalist approach to current controller A.C. Stickel, who’s “somewhere in between,” according to Strohm.

“The City Controller is responsible for approving the expenditures of the City, maintaining daily balances for all city funds, and examining and auditing the accounts of the City,” as well as to serve on the public safety pension boards, the city website states.

Council will interview Stickel at one of its meetings.

The third-party audit is actually not a state requirement, but a task that is technically intended for the controller, according to Clapper.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.