In a letter published in Sunday’s Sun Gazette, City Council members propose giving voters a choice of what form of government they want the City to adopt. But Council’s proposed ballot question leaves out one important choice: a Home Rule Charter, which would enable voters a much fuller range of options.
A Home Rule Charter would offer Williamsport citizens the greatest voice in their own government. It would enable them not only to choose one of the optional forms of government listed by Council, but also to incorporate additional elements. Home rule would allow citizens to be active rather than passive participants in their own government, now and going forward.
In their letter, Council members lay out the four optional forms of government that voters can choose from, under Pennsylvania’s code for third-class cities. But they omit the Home Rule option, which more than 70 municipalities in the Commonwealth have adopted since 1972. That list includes 21 third-class cities, as well as small townships, boroughs, and larger cities.
To be clear, under Pennsylvania’s code, the “third-class city” designation refers only to the population, not to the quality of life. Williamsport can, and should be, a first-class city in the hearts and minds of the people who live here. But that won’t be possible as long as we have a top-down government that makes ordinary citizens feel as if they have very little say in policies, taxation, or legislation.
When residents in most neighborhoods, including the entire East End and all of the West End, have no representation in City government, and most city leaders live within a few blocks of each other – that’s not representative government.
When citizens are limited to speaking for no more than three minutes at Council meetings – that’s not representative government.
When the only other ways voters can make their voices heard is to speak to individual council members and vote in elections every other year – those are the bare minimum requirements for representative government.
No wonder so many citizens don’t bother to vote or to show up at Council meetings. They don’t feel as if their voices matter. They don’t think their elected leaders listen to them.
What exactly would a more representative government look like in Williamsport?
For the first time, voters could have access to three powerful citizens’ tools: Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. These are permitted in Pennsylvania only in municipalities with home rule charters.
Some definitions and examples:
Referendum: a piece of legislation, like this home rule referendum, that is passed by Council and then referred to the voters for final approval. For example, Council could propose raising taxes for a specific purpose but, in order to ensure public support, put the question on the ballot as a Referendum.
Initiative: the means by which citizens originate legislation and circulate a petition in order to place it on the ballot for voters to consider. For example, citizens could gather petition signatures and place an Initiative on the ballot to change the current system of electing all seven City Council members at large to a system of, say, four elected by neighborhood districts and three elected at large.
Recall: the procedure by which voters can remove elected officials from office through a direct vote before their term has ended. If citizens believed that an elected official had abused his or her power, they could put a Recall question on the ballot to remove that official now, rather than two or three years later at the next regular election.
The Home Rule Charter itself could include essential documents like a Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights or a Voter’s Bill of Rights.
Council members say they want voters to have the choice of what form of government to live in. If they truly want to give voters choice, they will amend their proposed referendum to include Home Rule as an option. That ballot question would read, with the additions in italics:
“Shall a government study commission of seven members be elected to study the existing form of government of the municipality, to consider the advisability of the adoption of an optional form of government or a home rule charter, to recommend the adoption of an optional form of government or to draft and recommend a home rule charter?”
We strongly urge voters: Tell Council to give citizens their full range of choices, as outlined by statute. The community and its elected officials would all benefit from the more actively engaged citizenry that would be the natural result.
Williamsport Citizens for Home Rule