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Home Rule Study Commission adopts bylaws, plans first phase of its work

In this file photo from Thursday, June 8, 2023, members of the Home Rule Commission conduct their first meeting, flanked by City Clerk Bernie Harris, left, and city Solicitor Barry Handwerger, right. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

The Lancaster city Home Rule Study Commission disposed of a number of preliminary administrative tasks over the course of a 2 1/2 hour meeting Thursday evening.

At the session, their second, commissioners approved their bylaws, appointed city Solicitor Barry Handwerger as the commission’s parliamentarian and commission Vice Chair Amy Ruffo as its spokesperson and decided to schedule another meeting in July as they mapped out a rough strategy for the initial phase of they work.

As parliamentarian, Handwerger is empowered to advise the commission chairperson on meeting procedures and, upon request, preside over a motion in order to allow the chairperson to participate in debate.

Over the next nine months, commissioners are to study all aspects of city government and finance to determine if home rule would create a better framework than the Optional Third-Class City Charter under which Lancaster now operates.

“It says ‘study,’ and that is your job,” said Gerald Cross, senior fellow with the Pennsylvania Economy League, which is providing consulting and administrative support.

For now, commission members should defer consideration of alternatives, he said: Their task is to learn about the existing facts on the ground and they should undertake it with an open mind.

“Not everything is broken in local government,” he said, advising them to be alert to what’s working.

A proposed timeline crafted by the Economy League calls for commissioners to read up on city government and state municipal law in July and August as well as interview key city elected officials and staff. They are then to meet to discuss what they learned and analyze the existing arrangement’s strengths and weaknesses.

Ruffo suggested scheduling an additional meeting before the interviews, so commission members could discuss their reading with Handwerger and the Economy League team and ask questions. Her colleagues agreed; that meeting will take place in July, the exact date to be determined.

In a public comment toward the end of Thursday’s Home Rule Study Commission meeting, city resident Linda Schreiner urged the commission to make it easier for the public to follow its work. The meeting agenda and livestream link should be clearly posted and easy to access, she said: She had to look long and hard for the former and was unable to find the latter.

There should be a contact email posted, as well as links or copies of all the material the commission is reviewing.

“You need to educate the public as much as you can,” said Schreiner, who works for Lancaster County government as director of purchasing. “… You want them to be your cheerleaders.”

Commission members have expressed eagerness to engage the public proactively, through outreach meetings outside City Hall and other measures.

“I think we’re all on the same page,” member Tony Dastra said. “I think the goal is to make sure the public has connections as much as possible to as many resources (as possible.”

The commission’s bylaws require posting of “an official record of its proceedings” within 10 days of each meeting. The exception is meeting minutes, which have to be voted on at a subsequent meeting before posting.

Meanwhile, the commission must develop a budget. Handwerger enumerated a list of known expenses: the contract with the Pennsylvania Economy League, which is $3,250 per month; advertising costs for publishing meeting announcements in local newspaper LNP as required by law; printing costs for the report the commission will eventually issue.

Should the body move forward with drafting a charter, additional expenses would follow.

The city expects to secure a grant from the state Department of Community & Economic Development to cover half the budget, with the city providing a 50% match to cover the other half. The budget forms the basis for the grant, Cross said, but Handwerger assured the commission that the process is flexible: The budget is merely an initial estimate and can be amended without difficulty.

Commission member Tony Dastra asked for the budget to include provisions for renting community meeting venues. He also suggested that the commission make provisions for involving local college students in its work, either through class projects or internships, and that the budget allow those individuals to be compensated.

Cross said his team would be happy to work with Handwerger on the budget. Handwerger said there’s no hard deadline, but a draft might be ready for the commission’s next meeting.

He noted the city is providing in-kind services to offset what could otherwise be substantial cost drivers: He is supplying legal services, City Clerk Bernie Harris is providing administrative support and the commission is using City Council’s chambers at City Hall to hold meetings and livestream them.

Eight of the nine commission members took part Tuesday; member Elizabeth Elias was absent.