Debate needed on mayor

When the Altoona Government Study Commission writes a draft charter for Altoona to operate under a home rule charter, it is expected to spell out the powers assigned to the mayor.

And while a strong-mayor form of government appears to be drawing support from commission members, their recent discussion about the mayor’s power deserves more debate.

When former mayors Wayne Hippo and Bill Schirf addressed the study commission, they did a good job of explaining how they were handicapped as part-time mayors. Both spoke about their limited powers and limited resources.

Hippo also spoke about attending a municipal government conference, where he perceived himself at a disadvantage in comparison to the full-time strong mayors.

But if the study commission agrees that Altoona should have a full-time strong mayor, the question that immediately follows is: “How much authority should that mayor have?”

Following that, more questions surface: “Should the mayor be able to hire and fire a city manager, the city police chief or the city fire chief? Should the mayor be able to tell department heads which street repairs in which neighborhoods get priority?”

If the answers are yes, that seems to be a little too much, especially for Altoona residents who can recall a parochial style of government from the past.

On the other hand, the idea of a full-time mayor sounds enticing if the city’s voting residents pick a mayor with the personality and the ability to be our city’s advocate.

Part-time mayors are at disadvantage in trying to do that work while also trying to make a living and handle their own financial responsibilities. Selecting someone to devote full-time attention to that effort sounds like a step that could generate some improvements for Altoona.

At a meeting earlier this month, the study commission members seemed to be asking the right questions about the powers to be assigned to the mayor, and as a group, they didn’t seem to immediately be coming to a consensus. That’s good, because the topic needs more thought and more discussion before the commission begins writing the proposed charter, which will spell out the mayor’s power or lack of it.

The wording in that charter – and the power assigned to the mayor – will be significant factors influencing public sentiment, and ultimately the public vote on the change to home rule style of government that the commission is recommending for our city.