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Home Rule Study Commission debates citizen petition, referendum options

The Home Rule Study Commission meets at City Hall on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. (Source: City of Lancaster)

Lancaster citizens could force City Council to consider particular issues, and it would be significantly easier to call a referendum to overrule council’s decisions, under provisions considered by the Home Rule Study Commission Tuesday night.

Commission members have said they want to promote direct democracy and encourage more public participation in city government. Including systems for petitions and referendums in the home rule charter the commission is drafting would align with that goal.

Consultants from the Pennsylvania Economy League proposed a framework with three options:

  • Petitioning City Council to call a special meeting to discuss a particular issue;
  • Petitioning City Council to consider a proposed ordinance; and allowing a citywide referendum if council doesn’t pass it;
  • Petitioning City Council to repeal an existing ordinance; and announcil a citywide referendum if council leaves it in place.

The first option would be a new power granted to citizens. The other two are available currently, but the thresholds for exercising them are high: Under the Third Class City Code, petitioners have 15 days to collect signatures equal to 20% of the votes cast in the most recent mayoral election, which for Lancaster was in 2021. In that contest, voters cast 6,161 ballots, so 1,232 signatures would be needed.

This flow chart shows a proposed framework for citizen petitions and referendums. Click to enlarge. (Source: Pa. Economy League | OUL)

The commission members debated at length how high to set the signature number to discourage frivolous petitions while keeping the option accessible and useful for those acting in good faith. Commission members collected 300+ signatures last spring when they ran to be on the commission; they referenced that experience as they weighed the proposed thresholds.

Member Carl Feldman suggested requiring signatures totaling 3% of the past mayoral vote to call a special meeting, which met with general approval. To force consideration or reconsideration of an ordinance, he proposed a threshold of 10%.

Using the 2021 election (6,131 votes), 3% works out to 184.8, and 10% would be 616. Petitioners would have 45 days to gather their signatures.

City Council members were elected to their posts, which confers legitimacy, Feldman said, so the signature thresholds need to be high enough to confer comparable legitimacy on petitioners.

Chair Brian Adams agreed: “I don’t want it to be just one person with an axe to grind,” he said.

Darlene Byrd argued for keeping the thresholds low, suggesting Feldman’s 10% for ordinance-related petitions be decreased to 5%.

“This is what’s bringing power to the people,” she said, arguing that City Council isn’t accountable enough to citizens. One City Council member may be willing to bring forward a citizens’ concern, she said, but if another council member isn’t willing to second it, discussion ends right there.

As an alternative to calling a special meeting, issue-related petitions could direct that items be placed on council’s regular agenda, the Pennsylvania Economy League’s Gerald Cross told the commission. That’s a good idea, Feldman said: More people might turn out for a regular meeting and it would reduce the chance of administrative errors, such as neglecting to advertise a special meeting and post its agenda in advance.

Byrd and member Tony Dastra, however, argued against taking special meetings off the table. At minimum, a petition-driven issue should be the first item on the agenda, Dastra said, so citizens don’t have to wait for hours to be heard.

Eventually, Adams called for a show of hands: Special meeting or agenda item? With commission member Elizabeth Elias absent, the vote was tied 4-4, leaving the matter undecided.

Attending Tuesday’s meeting were several representatives of Bethel AME Church, where Dastra and Maxine Cook had held a City Council Subcommittee meeting on Sunday. At the concluding public comment period, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Ed Bailey, told the commission he was disturbed by the apparent reservations he was seeing about increasing citizen participation.

“Every citizen’s voice is important,” he said, and home rule should ensure City Council is responsive to ordinary people and the interests of neighborhoods like the Southeast. He noted the board is majority White and said it should “listen and learn” and offer Byrd less resistance.

Budget policy

Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, the commission reviewed draft charter language on budget procedures.

In line with deliberations last month, the charter will start the budget process earlier, and require both a one-year operating budget and a five-year annual budget. The city administration would post monthly budget reports and give budget presentations to City Council every quarter.

That will provide transparency and make it easier to catch any emerging problems as early as possible, Cross and his PEL colleague, Fred Reddig, told One United Lancaster.

Budgets are to be passed by the end of December, but the charter would allow mayors and City Councils to revisit and amend them during the first 45 days of the fiscal year. That prevents incoming administrations from having to follow a budget set by their predecessors, especially if an outgoing administration included unworkable “poison pill” provisions, Cross said.

Byrd said residents should be able to demand answers to budget-related questions. That wouldn’t be practical, member Peter Barber and others said: The state’s Right-to-Know law already applies and demanding that City Council answer questions to a questioner’s satisfaction sets an impossible standard.

Mayor Danene Sorace suggested one avenue: At present, during budget hearings, the city distributes cards for questions and comments, which it posts online afterward, along with its responses.

City resident Matt Alspach advised the commission to “absolutely” include limits on year-on-year tax increases, an idea Byrd has been advocating. Lancaster is the most heavily taxed municipality in Lancaster County, he said, and it would be “misguided” to rely solely on City Council to exercise financial restraint.

If limits were included, “it would put a lot of constituents’ minds at ease,” he said.

The Home Rule Study Commission meets next at 6:30 pm. on Thursday, July 18. It is hoping to finish a draft charter this month. For more information, visit the commission’s page on the city website.