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Home Rule Study Commission considers charter options for removing City Council members

The Home Rule Study Commission meets in council chambers at City Hall on Thursday, April 25, 2024. (Source: City of Lancaster)

Lancaster’s home rule charter should provide for the removal of City Council members convicted of serious crimes or judged to be incapacitated, members of the Home Rule Study Commission agreed Thursday evening.

They were reluctant, however, to vest the power of removal in City Council itself. Instead, they favored the idea of council referring the matter to county court by petition.

Pennsylvania’s Constitution already bars elected officials from serving upon conviction of “misbehavior in office or of any infamous crime,” commission member Carl Feldman noted. Solicitor Barry Handwerger said there is case law fleshing out that standard; the commission could also specify in the charter which crimes are grounds for removal.

As for incapacity, there are well-established court procedures for determining when that threshold is met. The charter could provide that any Council member so adjudicated be disqualified automatically, Handwerger said.

The commission is considering incorporating an Ethics Board into the governmental structure it is creating. It, too, ought to be able to review cases and petition county court for removal, Feldman said.

Meeting added next Thursday

The Home Rule Study Commission voted Thursday to start its meetings a half hour earlier from now on, at 6:30 p.m. rather than 7 p.m.

It has also scheduled an extra meeting this coming Thursday, May 2, which will make for three meetings in a row. Since beginning to draft a charter, it has set meetings twice a month, on the second and fourth Thursdays.

For more information, visit the commission’s web page. To submit comments, use this form.

The Home Rule Study Commission considered several other questions regarding City Council on Thursday. Members provisionally agreed not to include term limits for council members in the charter, and that it should allow candidates to run for multiple offices, such as mayor and City Council, at the same time. If they won two, say, they would pick one and the charter’s vacancy provisions would kick in for the other one, Handwerger said.

Member Tony Dastra said the charter should address the case of council members who are absent or out of communication for lengthy periods of time. He cited the instance of Louise Williams, who was absent from council chambers for months in 2017 due to a fall.

Resign to run

The commission was divided on whether sitting council members should have to resign to run for other offices. In Philadelphia, that’s the rule, and it’s problematic, Feldman said: Councilmembers qualified to seek higher office — potentially a net benefit to the city as a whole — are dissuaded from doing so, due to the risk of ending up out of office entirely.

Other commission members, however, said campaigning can distract council members from their duties. If multiple sitting council members are running for the same position, that can lead to acrimony, Dastra said, citing the 2022 Democratic primary race for state representative between then-City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El and City Councilwoman Janet Diaz.

Eventually, Pennsylvania Economy League’s Gerald Cross asked for a show of hands on applying resign-to-run. There were four hands for applying it to council members seeking federal office and three in the case of state office. Seeing no majority, Cross declared the issue “off the table.”

Revisiting by-district elections

While the commission has tentatively settled on electing all council members at large, the idea of by-district elections has not gone away. Dastra, perhaps their strongest advocate, said he wants the commission to form a subcommittee on the topic, saying, “I think there’s some exploration to be done.”

He stopped short of making a formal motion, in part because Darlene Byrd, who made a similar proposal at the previous meeting, was not present. Dastra added that in his view, districting extends to the discussion around the Ethics Board: He envisions having district representation itself, and potentially weighing in on district maps for council seats.

At the commission’s March 15 meeting, former Mayor Rick Gray firmly against districting. Former Mayor Art Morris made the contrary case Thursday, urging the commission to revisit the issue. Districting shouldn’t be seen as a threat, he said, saying it has been beneficial in the decision-making of the Planning Commission, whose nine members include one representative from each of the city’s six planning zones. He suggested a hybrid system, with a council seat for each city quadrant and three at-large members.

Residents Adriana Atencio and Lisa Stillwell disagreed. Stillwell said it would “balkanize” the city and create a competition for resources. Atencio, the executive director of The Common Wheel, said she saw the effects of a by-district City Council system first-hand in New Orleans, where one neighborhood’s vehement opposition to a bike lane gave Councilman Freddie King the political leverage to have it removed.

Tina Bardell, head of the government affairs committee at the Lancaster County Association of Realtors, said there should be no health or pension benefits for council members, but there should be term limits. City Council is a part-time job, not a career, she said.

Nor should council members be able to run for more than one office, she told the commission: “You really need to limit them.”