Friday 5: Municipal Government

Columbia River Park

Columbia Borough is building a pavilion, services building, benches and picnic tables through a grant from the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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!

  1. 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.
  2. Townships. 1st-class townships are usually run by 5 commissioners. 2nd-class townships are usually run by 3 supervisors.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

6 Responses to “Friday 5: Municipal Government”

  1. 1 Edith Cresmer [member of the Granny Peace Brigade - which is how I found your blog] April 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Thank you for this summary. I hope to learn about this from a NY State perspective. I’m retired from employment in NYC, still living here and active with the Granny Peace Brigade [GPB]. I started to subscribe to your blog after you mentioned that group once time last year.

    My education included a Masters in Urban Planning and I love learning more about how governments work. It’s so important for everyone to be aware of these things instead of vague about it. When people rail vs government it saddens me — would that they’d become really knowledgeable and involved instead.

    The GPB has been imploring the NYC Council to de-fund a program in high schools for Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, as part of our hope to influence the reduction in militarism. Not successful yet but some of our members are getting very skilled at knowing who to talk to, etc.

    • 2 RogueAnthropologist April 7, 2012 at 10:33 am

      Here’s a site about open meeting laws in New York state:

      You know, as an anthropologist I definitely see the appeal and importance of learning about what’s going on at a global level or in places different from where you live, but at the same time I see how much more empowering it can be for people to learn about what’s going right in front of them and find ways to act. It’s nice to hear more about what GPB is up to other than being iconic protesters–keep it up and thanks for commenting!

  2. 3 paindecampagne April 6, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Interesting differences! So do you cover Washington Boro, by chance? Or is it not even a borough?

    • 4 RogueAnthropologist April 7, 2012 at 10:25 am

      Nope, someone else covers Washington Borough. I just cover Columbia Borough and Columbia Borough School District.

      • 5 RogueAnthropologist April 7, 2012 at 10:28 am

        Also, Columbia’s borough hall building has “Boro Hall” etched in its stone entrance. I assume it’s rather old (like many buildings in Columbia) as in from times when words had various acceptable spellings.

      • 6 RogueAnthropologist April 7, 2012 at 10:29 am

        (before AP style)

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