Local government officials, whether elected or appointed, shape residents’ lives in a range of ways. Here’s how to become involved in your municipality and what to do when problems arise.
by Min Xian of Spotlight PA State College
This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.
Local government officials in Pennsylvania, whether elected or appointed, shape residents’ lives in a range of ways. They are responsible for providing clean water, keeping streets safe, and supplying a vision for a community’s long-term growth, among other duties.
In January, Spotlight PA hosted a virtual panel on Pennsylvania’s fragmented system of local government and how that setup affects municipal oversight.
Spotlight PA held a follow-up panel on Aug. 3 to discuss how Pennsylvanians can be better involved in local government and what to do when problems arise. Here are five takeaways from the conversation, which can be viewed in full on spotlightpa.org.
Accessibility is the pillar of transparency.
Pennsylvania’s open records and open meeting laws set the baseline for transparency and accountability in local government. The laws ensure that residents can participate in decision-making on the issues closest to them — although in practice, the level of adherence to these rules varies, and enforcement largely depends on each governing body and its constituents.
The Borough of Chambersburg posts meeting agendas and minutes online, along with contact information for elected officials and staff. Council Member Alice Elia said the borough also emails nearly 3,000 subscribers information about upcoming meetings and community announcements.
Elia said that as an elected official, she prioritizes being accessible.
“I have found that all too often when I as a voter or constituent have reached out to people who represent me, they don’t always respond, and you feel like you’re sending your message into a void,” she said. “I want to make it easier for people to find out what’s happening and not necessarily put the onus on them to search it out.”
Qualified personnel in local government makes a difference.
Elected officials establish policies and make critical decisions in local governments, while appointed staff members carry out those tasks. State law allows municipal leaders to hire a manager to help run day-to-day operations efficiently.
Greg Primm of Allegheny Township in Westmoreland County said municipal managers like himself have to be a “jack of all trades.” They help elected officials navigate the mandates of their job as well as areas like human resources and finance.
Pennsylvania codes do not mandate a manager’s qualifications, which Primm said can be problematic for local governments if they do not have the resources to hire a professional with adequate expertise.
When he began his career more than 30 years ago as a borough manager, Primm said he was a “scared kid” who had to get a crash course in accounting from his stepfather so that he could process the payroll a few days into the job. “Borough Council … made a decision to hire me with zero financial experience,” he recalled. “They were lucky I took that job seriously.”
The public has the ability to drive and demand change.
The commonwealth has plenty of ways for local officials to boost their skills through voluntary training and continuing education. The Governor’s Center for Local Government Services, the Local Government Commission, and numerous statewide associations all offer such opportunities.
Neal Fogle, senior economic and community development educator for Penn State Extension, said the public can benefit from these educational materials too. With municipalities having limited budgets and staff, “A lot of times it takes a local champion on a particular issue to really bring it forward,” he said.
Fogle added that understanding the time frames of local government action — the period of time to give input on an ordinance or the deadline for state and federal grants to be spent, for instance — can assist residents in the process.
“I truly believe that there is a lot of power when residents show up [and] speak out,” Elia said. “Generally, elected officials want to make their public happy. Even if they have to say no at times, the fact is that they will probably pay more attention to what your problem is, or what your question is, if you show up at a public meeting and state that on the public record.”
Disagreement is part of the process.
When local officials’ decisions deviate from what some residents want, members of the public might feel ignored and discouraged from engaging with their government. Panelists acknowledged those responses as natural but said disputes are a fact of life in local government, where a wide range of perspectives and needs coexist.
Fogle said healthy public engagement doesn’t end with a vote on a given issue; rather, there should be ongoing talks between people and officials in which all parties shape the outcomes of decisions.
Local government accountability involves everyone.
Throughout the discussion, the panelists stressed the need for the public to pay attention to local government and emphasized the influence residents can have on municipal transparency. They lamented the decline of local news outlets, which had a long tradition of keeping residents informed. Without newsrooms, residents and officials can be further alienated from each other.
For local governments to be accountable, Elia said elected officials should try to make public information easily accessible to constituents and listen to them even if opinions differ. Primm said municipalities should take professional management seriously and promote strong ethics and technical competence among staff. And Fogle advised Pennsylvanians to talk with their neighbors and all their local officials, including those on authorities, advisory boards, or commissions.
“Accountability is certainly to have a fair process, to hear what all the opinions are, and to look at what is best for the community,” Fogle said.
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