Commission still discussing home rule

At a hearing of the city Government Study Commission Monday on a draft of its nearly finished home rule charter, several officials made presentations, mostly favoring the draft – but no ordinary residents spoke.

Does that show a disturbing lack of interest in a proposed document that will become the blueprint for a new kind of city government, with a full-time mayor, if voters approve in a referendum this fall?

Not according to City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh.

“It’s a good sign,” Butterbaugh said. “Positivity tends to be OK. It’s the negativity that makes the ‘sheeple’ come out.”

The lack of public response also didn’t trouble former Mayor Bill Schirf, who was in the audience of about 45 people at the Devorris Downtown Center.

“There was a mandate,” Schirf said, speaking of the overwhelmingly favorable vote to appoint the Government Study Commission in last year’s primary. “[The people] want to see a change.”

There was negativity, however, at a City Council work session before the hearing, from Interim City Manager Peter Marshall, who had previously recommended dropping the charter’s strong-mayor provisions in favor of retaining the council-manager form to avoid politicizing operations that have been “professional” since the city abandoned the commission form of government at the end of the 1980s.

The commission made a few adjustments recently, based on Marshall’s recommendations, but still left “a confusing charter that will not serve the city well,” Marshall told council and commission members.

He cited what he sees as conflicts and ambiguities between mayoral and managerial duties and prerogatives – as well as what he believes is a problematic subjection of the manager.

According to the charter, the manager may appoint, suspend and remove all employees – but subject to mayoral approval.

Commission Chairman Wayne Hippo acknowledged there might be need for further clarification.

But the mayor’s power over the manager is limited, he said.

The mayor can nominate the manager, but needs a council majority to hire or fire the manager, Hippo said.

The mayor’s role won’t be day-to-day, but leadership, the promotion of economic development and the taking of “a seat at the table in Harrisburg” – a role that’s been impossible for Altoona’s part-time, ceremonial mayors in the last two decades, Hippo said.

Besides Altoona, the largest city in Pennsylvania without a full-time mayor has 22,000 people – less than half Altoona’s population, according to Hippo.

Altoona needs to act like the state’s 10th largest city, he said.

Marshall was right in describing the commission’s aim, according to Vice Chairman Richard Fiore: to “straddle” the strong mayor and council-manager form.

The manager will have enough independence to maintain the kind of “professionalism” that Marshall prizes, Fiore said.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Fiore said. “But there’s a lot of positive changes.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.