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Home Rule Study Commission subcommittee will revisit City Council issues, seek public input

The Lancaster Home Rule Study Commission meets on Thursday, June 6, 2024. (Source: City of Lancaster)

A three-member subcommittee will take another look at the rules governing City Council under the charter that Lancaster’s Home Rule Study Commission is drafting.

The commission approved the idea at its meeting Thursday evening. Tony Dastra, who proposed the subcommittee, will chair it; the other two members will be Darlene Byrd and Maxine Cook.

The commission as a whole has not yet studied City Council with the care it warrants, Dastra said, nor has it heard enough public input. Accordingly, the subcommittee will launch an intensive effort to hear from the community on the topic — in particular, whether City Council should be elected at large or by district.

Based on an earlier consensus, the commission has drafted a home rule charter that provides for a seven-member City Council elected at large. Dastra, however has continued to make the case for districts, contending they would reduce the influence of political parties and that smaller constituencies allow a closer relationship between representatives and their electorate. Byrd also favors districts and Cook has indicated interest in the idea.

At present, Lancaster’s City Council is elected at large. Proponents of keeping that approach say the city is too small for districts; that shifting to them would encourage parochialism and infighting; that smaller jurisdictions would make it harder to find qualified candidates; and that it would increase logistical complexity.

During public comment on Thursday, sisters Vickey Wright-Smith and Sabrina Wright dismissed those concerns as utterly unfounded and said that each city neighborhood deserves its own voice. Wright-Smith called for each ward to have a council member.

“I can’t think of anything more democratic,” she said. For the commission not to move in that direction would make her question its motives, she said.

According to the state Department of Community & Economic Development, out of 71 home rule charters 40 (56%) provide for at-large council elections, 12 (17%) use districts and 19 (27%) are hybrids.

The new subcommittee, like the commission’s other subcommittees and the commission itself, will be subject to Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law, requiring meetings to be advertised in advance and open to the public. Dastra said he’s eager to get started and that every aspect of City Council is up for debate.

Dastra has proposed a hybrid City Council electoral system: One council member per city quadrant and five at large.

At the end of the day, the commission wants to craft a charter that earns public support, he said. By having a dialogue with members of the community, and hearing their views, “I think this will give them more confidence” in the ultimate product.

Commission expands online presence

The Lancaster Home Rule Study Commission is now on social media.

In response to suggestions from the public, it has launched an account on Instagram, member Maxine Cook said. It can be found there under the handle @hrsclancasterpa.

Full details about the commission and its work, including links to meeting materials, are available on its web page, hosted by Lancaster city. Video of its meetings are archived on the city’s YouTube channel. You can sign up for email updates here and submit comments or questions using this online form.

The city controller

The commission also made some key decisions Thursday on the position of city controller.

Currently, it’s a part-time elected position. City officials have said that having an elected controller and treasurer is duplicative, but that an appropriately designed controller position could serve as an effective independent fiscal watchdog.

But should the controller be elected or appointed; could it be a firm as well as an individual; and should the charter mandate that the controller be a Certified Public Accountant, or CPA? If the controller is elected, a CPA mandate would be difficult to enforce, commission member John McGrann said: Anyone can run by collecting enough petition signatures, and if someone’s qualifications were insufficient, they would have to be challenged in court.

Byrd, however, said she was dead set against allowing the appointment of a firm; and that it’s essential to her that the controller be an individual living in the city. Other commission members agreed they liked the idea of an elected controller directly accountable to the voters, though Chairman Brian Adams dissented, saying he sees the role as an appointed professional one, like the city solicitor or engineer.

Eventually, the commission agreed on a hybrid approach used in Harrisburg: A controller who is elected, but who is authorized to appoint a deputy controller. Under the proposal, if the controller is not a CPA, he or she would be required to appoint a deputy who is.

The current draft charter eliminates the role of elected treasurer. Administration officials say the city’s Treasury Department, overseen by the Director of Administrative Services, makes the elected treasurer position redundant.

The commission meets next in two weeks, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 20. To ensure they stay on track, the commissioners agreed Thursday evening to hold an extra, third meeting. It will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 29. Since late January, all commission meetings have been held in City Council chambers.