An independent news publication of
United Way of Lancaster County


Home Rule Study Commission split on allowing fringe benefits for City Council

In this image from online video, Lancaster’s Home Rule Study Commission meets at City Hall on Thursday, April 11, 2024. (Source: City of Lancaster)

Lancaster’s Home Rule Study Commission is nearly done laying out the framework for City Council in the charter it is drafting, but it deadlocked Thursday on a key issue: Whether to leave open the possibility for council members to receive medical, dental and pension benefits.

The issue, carried over from the commission’s previous meeting, will continue at least into the next one after a vote on it resulted in a 4-4 tie. The ninth member, Vice Chair Amy Ruffo, was absent.

Chairman Brian Adams reiterated his view that City Council members should be seen as independent contractors, not city employees. Independent contractors arrange for their own insurance, he said.

Other members have framed it as an equity issue: Allowing benefits could enable someone with “less than ideal financial circumstances” to serve, and not to worry that being outspoken politically could be a hindrance in the job market, Tony Dastra said.

The cost, however, would not be cheap. For a City Council member with a family, the city of Lancaster pays more than $42,000 in insurance and pension expenses, Solicitor Barry Handwerger said, citing figures provided by the administration. For seven City Council members, that’s a total of nearly $300,000.

For council members who decline the coverage, the city still provides a payment in lieu of benefits. It totals more than $20,000, Handwerger said.

That’s a highly generous benefit, John McGrann said, asking how common it is. Large cities typically provide benefits to their councils; small municipalities typically do not, said Fred Reddig and Gerald Cross of the Pennsylvania Economy League, the nonprofit advising the commission and providing administrative support.

Carl Feldman noted that options have come online, such as the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, that have made access to health insurance easier than before.

Peter Barber suggested the charter say council members “may” receive benefits, and that the decision be left up to empaneled councils themselves. The commission had previously agreed that City Council should be able to vote itself pay raises, provided an election intervenes between the vote and the increase, as is currently the case. Benefits could be handled the same way, he said.

That proposal ultimately led to the 4-4 vote. Dastra, Darlene Byrd and Maxine Cook endorsed Barber’s idea; while Feldman, McGrann and Elizabeth Elias agreed with Adams that the charter should bar benefits for City Council outright.

Vacancies, eligibility rules

On other matters, commission members reached consensus. They agreed that council members should take an oath of office; and that moving out of Lancaster would disqualify an individual from continuing to hold office.

Currently, City Council must fill vacancies within 30 days. That’s too short, Handwerger said, and the commission agreed to lengthen it. The majority settled on 45 days, although a few commissioners wanted 60 days.

The commission agreed to extend the length of time people must live in Lancaster before becoming eligible to run for council from one year to two. A couple members suggested it should be three years; including Byrd, who also wants City Council terms to be two years rather than four.

The commission agreed the charter should provide for council members to participate by phone or Internet. On that point, Byrd wasn’t convinced initially: In-person attendance is important, she said. Handwerger, however, said it’s essential to allow phone and online participation in case of emergencies like the pandemic.

“You need to allow the flexibility,” he said.

By-district elections

At the end of the meeting, Byrd asked if the commission could request more information on elections by district. Its vote last month to move forward with at-large elections was hasty and done without due deliberation or sufficient information, she said.

Specifically, she said the commission should learn whether state law allows voters rather than City Council to elect the council president; and whether the quadrant maps that Dastra submitted to the commission would pass muster as the basis for a by-district system.

Adams advised her that a motion would be required. Ultimately, there were two, one for each element of Byrd’s inquiry: Both were defeated 4-4, with Byrd, Dastra, Cook and Elias in favor and Adams, Barber, Feldman, and McGrann against.

What’s next

At its next meeting, April 25, the commission will have a few more City Council questions to mop up. Once it does, it will have finished the single hardest task of drafting a charter, said the Economy League’s Cross.

It should have plenty of time on April 25 to plunge into the next step: Defining the role of mayor and the scope of that office. After that come other elected and appointed offices, then the structure of the city administration. Those elements will go more quickly, Cross said.

The commission is aiming to complete a draft of the charter before the end of summer, in order to allow enough time for it to be discussed and publicized prior to the public voting on it in a referendum in December. If a majority endorses it, it will take effect next year.