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Tomassetti seeks new county setup

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County Commissioner Terry Tomassetti is proposing a new set-up for county government that would replace the three-member board of commissioners and elected row officers.

It could operate with a legislative branch and an executive branch, much like those branches of the state and federal governments, Tomassetti said Tuesday.

And it would divide management responsibilities, he said, in a way that creates a better system of checks and balances and helps the county avoid major financial issues like those that have developed over time.

“My report is not a criticism of any particular commissioner or board of commissioners,” Tomassetti said. But after 50 years of operating under a small outdated form of government, it’s clear that this no longer works.”

Tomassetti, who previously announced that he isn’t running for re-election in 2019, unveiled his proposal during the weekly commissioners meeting and asked for discussion at future meetings.

Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb said the proposal offered “a lot” of information.

The ideas are “worthy of consideration,” Erb said. “But we may defer to you to make some recommendations.”

Tomassetti titled his presentation, “The Case for Home Rule in Blair County” because changing the county’s current government requires a step-by-step procedure to draft a home rule charter that would be subject to voter approval.

The county currently operates under the state’s County Code so voters elect three commissioners and row officers including a controller, treasurer, register/recorder, prothonotary and sheriff.

Altoona’s government, in 2014 and 2015, transitioned to operating under a home rule charter with a full-time mayor, along with a full-time manager and part-time city council.

But Tomassetti said Tuesday that he has no interest in replicating that set-up at the county level.

“Some people may confuse this proposal with how the City of Altoona currently operates, but that’s not what I’m proposing,” Tomassetti said. “I’m proposing something our founding fathers implemented with two equal but separate branches of government.”

Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. said he supported the city’s transition to a home rule charter.

“But in some ways, I think it took away opportunities for the public to have an input,” Beam said.

Register/Recorder Mary Ann Bennis voiced a similar concern upon hearing of Tomassetti’s presentation.

“My utmost concern would be that the people don’t lose their voice,” Bennis said. “This office serves people every day and if they’re not happy, then they come to see me.”

Tomassetti said he sees a new set-up as a chance for more public input.

Instead of electing three county commissioners to control and manage a $60 million budget, Tomassetti said the voters could elect a legislative council of five or seven members. Each could be from a different region of the county, based on what an elected home study committee proposes.

And the executive board, Tomassetti said, would be composed of professional people like the department heads or row officers with expertise, headed by a county executive whom the voters could elect.

“I think it would give citizens a greater role in how their county government operates after writing their own home charter,” county Controller A.C. Stickel said. “But on the other hand, I’m not convinced that there’s any financial savings to be gained.”

Tomassetti sees operational and financial savings from more discussion and focus on county’s governmental operations. In support of his proposal, Tomassetti quoted American philosopher Michael Novak (1933-2017): “Our political institutions work remarkably well. They are designed to clang against each other. The noise is democracy at work.”

“In Blair County,” Tomassetti said, “there has been no clang or not enough clang.”

And as a result, he said the county developed serious financial problems while operating Valley View Home, failed to adequately fund its pension plan, failed to maintain the courthouse and failed to reassess on a regular basis.

The current governmental set-up, he said, has shown that the three-member commissioners board lacked “the combined skill, sufficient resources and available time” to manage a growing county government that was becoming more complex over time.

Tomassetti also criticized the state’s Sunshine Law for preventing one commissioner from talking to another commissioner “on essential issues” outside of a public meeting. Because two members make up a quorum of the three-member commissioners board, the Sunshine Law requires their discussions, with exceptions, to occur during public meetings.

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