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Home Rule Study Commission continues debating at-large vs. by-district City Council elections

The Home Rule Study Commission meets in council chambers at City Hall on Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Source: City of Lancaster)

Toward the end of its meeting Thursday, the Home Rule Study Commission began its first review of a partial draft text of the city charter it is crafting, but the discussion shifted almost immediately to a fresh round of debate over electing City Council members by district versus at large.

Based on an earlier majority vote, the draft charter calls for a seven-member City Council, with all seven elected citywide. Members Tony Dastra, Darlene Byrd and Elizabeth Elias, however, said the commission has yet to debate the topic properly, and that more data is need for a fully informed decision.

The issue of districting has come up repeatedly in the commission’s meetings, exposing a gulf, unbridgeable to date, between those who favor it and those who don’t. The commission has heard from two former mayors on the subject, with Rick Gray strongly opposing a district system but Art Morris saying it’s worth looking at and could be beneficial.

Dastra has proposed a nine-member council: Four from districts roughly corresponding to Lancaster’s four quadrants, the other five elected at large. Because districts are smaller, they give grassroots and independent candidates a better chance, he argued.

Earlier this year, he presented maps to the commission intended to show a quadrant-based scheme would be feasible, yielding four districts with roughly equal populations.

Byrd, the leader of the neighborhood group South Ann Concerned Neighbors, said Thursday that the city’s southeast, home to its poorest neighborhoods, is continually overlooked; with quadrant-based districting, it would always have at least one person representing its interests. She and Dastra complained that commission members who oppose districting have cited potential barriers, such as the need to draw maps, but then not allowed the commission to explore whether those barriers can be overcome.

Elias said she had understood the earlier decision was provisional, not final; she said she is undecided on districting and wants to learn more.

Members Peter Barber and Carl Feldman strongly oppose districts. Feldman contends they encourage representatives to focus on their district’s narrow concerns, rather than the welfare of the city per se.

Barber has maintained that drawing candidates from the whole city allows the strongest candidates to emerge and avoids issues such as a crosstown move pushing a council member out of his or her district and thus out of office. To be sure, a neighborhood may not have a resident on City Council in a given term, but that shifts over time, he said Thursday.

Lancaster is just too small to be subdivided further, he said: “On principle, I just think it’s a bad idea.”

Like Barber and Feldman, Chairman Brian Adams and John McGrann favor keeping elections at large. On Thursday, Vice Chair Amy Ruffo said she doubts the commission could set up a districting system with enough safeguards to prevent gerrymandering; and that she’s worried about the administrative challenges and expense of redistricting every 10 years, which a district-based system would require.

Pennsylvania law gives home rule study commissions an extra two months to draft charters that incorporate districts. Dastra said he prefers the idea of holding the referendum on the charter in next spring’s primary, because of the partisanship that surrounds general elections. McGrann forcefully disagreed: The November election will have the highest turnout, and waiting until the spring would be a liability.

Mayor Danene Sorace has said the city is facing a roughly $6 million fiscal cliff in 2025, and that without the flexibility to raise earned income taxes under a home rule charter, it will be forced into draconian service cuts and a sharp property tax increase.

Barber said he opposes districting as such, so showing him a map wouldn’t change his mind. He pressed Byrd to specify what additional information she needs.

For starters, an idea of what districting would cost, Byrd said, and whether a quadrant-based plan like Dastra’s is feasible. She disputed the notion that Lancaster is too small for districts: Reading has them, and the commission has heard nothing to indicate they don’t work there, she said.

Adams asked her to email him her request, and said he would see what could be done.

The commission’s ninth member, Maxine Cook, was absent Thursday. She previously expressed interest in exploring districting; Dastra characterized her as a “swing vote.”

Administration officers

Prior to the districting discussion, the commission wrapped up its initial consideration of the powers and duties of the mayor, and began framing stipulations for two appointed offices: the solicitor and city engineer.

Commission members voted 5-3 against requiring the mayor to resign in order to run for another office. They also decided against a prohibition on the mayor running both for re-election and another office: “Let’s leave it to the voters,” Adams said.

They agreed the mayor should be barred from holding another elected or fulltime appointed office, but that certain appointments, such as to a state advisory commission, should be allowable. Fred Reddig of the Pennsylvania Economy League, the nonprofit consulting organization assisting the commission, said he would bring a draft provision reflecting that distinction to the next meeting.

Commissioners discussed the city solicitor’s role at length before deciding to leave it essentially as is. They decided that the solicitor need only be licensed to practice in Pennsylvania, not admitted to “the bar of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court”; obtaining the latter qualification is a slightly more involved process, and requiring the former is sufficient, Solicitor Barry Handwerger said.

They left the city engineer’s role in place as well. However, they decided that City Council does not need to be involved in appointing the individual or firm; and that it can be left to the Department of Public Works. Adams said the charter should specify a civil or environmental engineer; other disciplines, he said, would not have the relevant expertise.

The commission is to meet next at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 23, at City Hall. At that session, it will hear a presentation from PFM, a consulting firm that has been analyzing Lancaster’s administrative operations and fiscal sustainability.