I grew up in Manor Township, but our mailing address was Millersville Borough. If my mom said she was going “downtown” she meant to Lancaster City.
The distinctions between different municipalities didn’t used to mean much to me, but today while swapping stories about municipal government with a friend who also freelances for a local newspaper I noticed some of the differences in governing structure, like “supervisors” vs. “council members.” Then I was looking up some information on Sunshine laws (regarding public meetings) and came across the Reporter’s Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government, from which I have taken this week’s Friday 5!
- Boroughs. “Boroughs have a strong and dominant council and a weak mayor.” The mayor’s main authority is as head of the police department (if there is one). He/she will vote if council has a tie. Council members are elected to 4-year terms, and they appoint other officials. The Borough Manager carries out the daily administrative tasks of the borough.
- Townships. 1st-class townships are usually run by 5 commissioners. 2nd-class townships are usually run by 3 supervisors.
- Cities. PA cities fall into categories based on population size. The first three categories—1st class, 2nd class, 2nd class A—only have one city each—Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, respectively. Those cities all operate under home rule charters (see #4). PA has 53 third-class cities, which may operate under a few forms: commission, mayor-council, council-manager, weak mayor-council.
- Home Rule. This charter grants local governments in PA the ability to determine their own structure. The municipality “can exercise any power or perform any function not denied by the Constitution, the General Assembly or its own home rule charter.” As of 2006, 71 jurisdictions had home rule charters. None of those are in Lancaster or Dauphin counties, so I’m curious about the history of home rule charters.
- Authorities. These are “public corporations set up to finance, or finance and run, individual public projects.” Municipalities or school districts establish authorities by passing an ordinance. The example that comes to mind for me are public transit authorities.
This is the type of information I need concrete examples to think about to understand, so it probably wouldn’t have meant much to me if I weren’t currently covering a borough council for the newspaper. I’m also learning a lot more about how taxes work than I ever did from activist arguments about how taxpayer dollars should or shouldn’t be spent at the federal level. Figuring out how local government works is a worthwhile exercise in understanding how the world around you is built—or in many cases, why it’s crumbling.