Posts Tagged 'local government'

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.

Local News

I’ve been freelance writing for the Lancaster newspaper since October. I started out covering the school board in a small town called Columbia and more recently added its borough council to my beats.

Though I’ve been working on Pennsylvania from Below for several years, this freelance work is the first time I’ve been doing consistent news reporting since the summer of 2010 in the West Bank. The difference in settings is easier to illustrate with images than words:

Nabi Saleh medic

Confrontation between a Palestinian medic and an Israeli soldier in the village of An Nabi Saleh. June 2010

Columbia board swearing in December 2011

Judge Robert Herman swears in new and returning Columbia school board members. December 2011

That’s most of the time. I did recently cover a local protest, but my primary duty as a freelance correspondent is to attend and report on school board meetings and borough council meetings. For most people, this would be a terribly boring task. In fact, right around the time I started this gig, my sister was in a college journalism class and had to write about a school board meeting. She complained for days. I, on the other hand, find the meetings surprisingly interesting. It’s difficult to be bored when you’re an anthropologist, so long as you’re around humans…Moreover, being a journalist requires me to understand what’s going on at the meetings well enough to write about it for the public.

Continue reading ‘Local News’


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