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Home Rule Study Commission subcommittee plans groundwork for by-district council elections

In this image from online video, from left, Home Rule Study Commission City Council subcommittee members Tony Dastra, Maxine Cook and Darlene Byrd meet in Council Chambers on Thursday, June 20, 2024. At the dias is City Clerk Bernard Harris. (Source: City of Lancaster)

The Home Rule Study Commission’s subcommittee on City Council charged out of the gate at its inaugural meeting Thursday night.

Its three members — Darlene Byrd, Maxine Cook and Chairman Tony Dastra — are tasked with taking a second look at Article II (PDF) of the commission’s draft home rule charter. They made it clear they are planning to propose significant revisions.

Article II covers City Council’s structure and the process for electing councilors and filling vacancies, among other things. At present, it calls for a seven-member council elected at large.

Byrd, Cook and Dastra all favor elections by district. To allow for that, City Council should be set up with nine members, not seven, Dastra said.

The full commission had developed its Article II draft on the understanding that both the number of City Council members and the method of electing them are set in stone once voters approve the charter and can’t be changed thereafter without convening another study commission and going through the process all over again.

It turns out that’s only partly true. The number of City Councilors is indeed a once-and-done decision, but the Home Rule Charter law allows the method of election to be changed by voter referendum.

Changing charter municipalities’ election methods

Pennsylvania statute 53 Pa. C.S. § 2941 reads in part as follows:

  • (a) Procedure. — The procedure for amending a home rule charter or optional plan of government shall be through the initiative procedure and referendum
  • (b) Changes in method of election. — Changes in the method of election of a municipal governing body from at-large elections to elections by district, maintain at-large elections or a combination of at-large elections and elections by district may be implemented by amending a home rule charter or optional plan without creation of a government study commission.

Accordingly, whether or not the commission ultimately chooses by-district elections they need to remain a viable option, Dastra said.

Tony Dastra

Dastra has backed a hybrid system with four single-representative districts, roughly corresponding to Lancaster’s quadrants, plus five at-large members. On Thursday, Byrd and Cook proposed a second option, also with nine members: Two per district and one at large. The commission could use the city’s magisterial district court districts as a starting point, Byrd suggested.

State and federal law require electoral districts to be as equal in population as possible and to be redrawn every 10 years. Dastra said he would like to set a population-per-representative number, if that were possible, so that City Council could grow (or shrink) in line with the city census.

The online tool Dave’s Redistricting allows districts to be drawn and analyzed easily, minimizing the overhead involved in reapportionment, Dastra said. He said he would begin preparing maps for the subcommittee to analyze.

Byrd said the subcommittee should review all the other aspects of City Council as well: How long councilors’ terms are, whether there are term limits and whether councilors should be eligible for health insurance.

As Dastra noted, whatever the subcommittee drafts will have to pass muster both with the full commission and with the voting public at large.

The debate over at-large versus by-district elections has loomed large in the commission’s deliberations. Proponents of at-large elections say Lancaster is too small for districts, and that implementing them would be unwieldy. Other objections raised have included whether qualified candidates can be reliably recruited in smaller areas, the inconvenience of disqualifying candidates if they move out of their district and the concern that districting would make representatives focus on parochial issues rather than the city as a whole.

Dastra, Cook and Byrd said districting would shift the balance toward underrepresented parts of the city and promote civic engagement. It can help redress the sins of the past, such as redlining, Dastra said.

With districting, people will always have a representative who lives in their neighborhood, Byrd said: “I believe it’s going to bring in more participation from the community.”

“It’s important that everyone should feel that we considered them,” Cook said.

Commission deliberations

The subcommittee’s meeting took place immediately after the Home Rule Study Commission itself. The commission is picking up its pace, aiming to have a draft done later this summer.

On Thursday, members reviewed new budget procedures and a charter preamble, each drafted by their respective subcommittees; among an array of other topics, including residency rules for department heads.

The charter’s draft budget article would require the annual budget process to start by the end of October, a month earlier than now. It would require both an annual operating budget with projections for the following two years; and a five-year capital budget. The subcommittee reviewed the article with Mayor Danene Sorace and Director of Administrative Services Tina Campbell, and they felt the changes would be improvements, subcommittee Chairman John McGrann said.

The article gives the mayor a line-item veto and allows City Council to overrule vetoes by a supermajority vote. If City Council fails to pass a budget in time, the mayor’s proposed budget is enacted.

Byrd objected, saying that gives the mayor too much power and that the charter should require both sides to come to terms. That’s not practical, Solicitor Barry Handwerger said: Without the proposed provision, the city could find itself entering a new year without the legislation it needs to collect taxes and pay its bills.

The preamble, meanwhile, is three sentences totaling 58 words. The goal was to craft something simple and aspirational, subcommittee Chairman Peter Barber said.

Draft preamble: City of Lancaster Home Rule Charter

We, the People of the City of Lancaster PA, aspire to establish the foundation of an accessible, ethical, and transparent government. This charter provides for equitable representation; sound fiscal management; and public health, safety and welfare, as well as a measure of local control. We do ordain and ratify this Home Rule Charter for the City of Lancaster.

The commission decided that city department heads should be required to reside in Lancaster, but to allow City Council to grant waivers. Byrd objected, saying taxpayers are underwriting department heads’ six-figure salaries and they should live in the city they serve. Other commission members, however, said there are cases when exemptions are reasonable, and that requiring City Council to sign off provides accountability.

Byrd also objected to her colleagues’ decision to lift the current statutory cap — nine — on the number of departments the city can have. The other commissioners said that, too, can be left to City Council to decide, though they agreed to language saying new departments should be created only when “appropriate and necessary.”

For more information

What’s next

At its next meeting on July 2, the commission will look at provisions for initiative, referendum and recall. There had been plans to hold an extra meeting if needed on Saturday, June 29, but the Pennsylvania Economy League, the nonprofit consultants advising the commission, assured Chairman Brian Adams that enough progress is being made to dispense with it.

If the commission finishes its draft charter by July, that would allow it to hold a public hearing on the document in early August. For the charter to appear on the November ballot, the commission must file its “final report” with the Lancaster County Board of Elections by Sept. 6. That’s a little later than expected, and it gives the commission roughly an additional two weeks to work, Handwerger said.

Dastra asked if the commission can adopt a bilingual charter, in Spanish and English. Yes, Handwerger said, but legally one version has to be the “controlling” version, so that there is a single reference in case of discrepancies between them.