Public involvement and approval is significant and essential during the home rule consideration process. The public must first decide whether to vote in favor of the formation of a government study commission to study the existing form of government and must also elect the members of the study commission. Note that the citizens can seek to elect members who are not in favor of consideration of a home rule charter, preferring the existing form of government to any change.
If the study commission recommends and proposes a change to the current form of government, it cannot go into effect unless the citizens of Blair County once again vote, this time to approve or reject the proposed change in county government.
Pennsylvania’s home rule law provides two alternate methods for placing the question of having a government study commission on the ballot. It may be initiated either (1) by an ordinance of the municipal governing body which in the case of Blair County would be the Board of Commissioners or (2) a petition of the registered voters of the County.
For initiation by petition of the registered voters, the petition must be signed by at least 5% of the number of persons in Blair County voting for the office of governor in the most recent gubernatorial general election, that being 2018. Since there were 44,058 voters in last year’s governor’s election 2203 registered voters who sign the petition to place on the ballot the question of whether a government study commission should be approved.
A sample ballot question would be as follows:
"Shall a government study commission of (seven, nine or eleven) members be elected to study the existing form of government of the county, to consider the advisability of the adoption of a home rule charter, and if advisable, to draft and to recommend a home rule charter?"
The deadline for filing the County’s ordinance to appear on the next election is 13 weeks before the date of the next primary or general election. Likewise, if initiated by petition, the referendum petition must be filed by the 13th week prior to the upcoming primary or general election where the question is to appear on the upcoming ballot.
The Government Study Commission serves as a representation of the community at large in examining the current local government, considering alternatives, reaching decisions on how the local government might best be run and presenting recommendations to the voters. It is not compelled to approve a change in the structure of county government. Rather its obligation is study the current form of government and make a recommendation only on whether or not to proceed with a change.
If the Commission makes such a recommendation, it can then draft and recommend a home rule charter. The proposed home rule charter can only go into effect after approval by the citizens of Blair County.
The commission has up to nine months to complete this study. If the commission decides that the current form of government is inadequate, it has nine more months to undertake its second task, which is to write a new charter, which would then be placed on the ballot as a referendum for citizens to accept or reject.
The meetings of the Commissioner are subject to Pennsylvania Sunshine Law, must be open to public attendance and must be advertised in advance, thereby enabling citizens to observe all proceedings and be informed throughout the entire study process
The members serve without pay and the commission is disbanded once its work is complete.
The role of the government study commission has been summed up very aptly by the Ferguson Township Government Study Commission:
• To conduct an in-depth study of municipal government.
• To probe deeply into procedures and inter-relationships of different parts of government so as to discover weaknesses or defects.
• To look outside the municipality to discover improved practices that might be applied and adopted.
• To evolve from its studies an arrangement for better government.
• Upon the development of the major elements to set them down in a clear, logical and consistent form as a Charter.
• To conduct its affairs in a manner which will win the respect of the citizens and educate and stimulate citizens groups and officials to get the Charter adopted.
Membership in a Study Commission does not necessarily imply expertness. Wisdom, practical judgment and amateur enthusiasm are as fundamental to a successful Charter Commission as are legal, social and political expertise.
For a more informative and detailed explanation about Home Rule in Pennsylvania, click on dced.pa.gov
to access the 2018 Pa. Department of Community and Economic Development Home Rule Report