Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Understanding Local Government in Pennsylvania (Part 1)

Michael J. “Mik” Robertson,

In order to understand what it means to be a local elected official in Pennsylvania, first it may help to identify how local government is set up. Local government in Pennsylvania is divided into a number of overlapping government entities in which each citizen lives. The four main types of entities are: Political Subdivisions, Municipalities, Municipal Corporations, and Local Authorities.

Political Subdivisions include municipalities and school districts.

Municipalities include municipal corporations and counties.

Municipal Corporations include cities, boroughs, town(s) and townships.

Local Authorities include municipal authorities and other bodies created by one or more political subdivisions pursuant to law. Examples are economic development authorities, recreation boards, and water or sewer authorities.

In January 2003, there were 67 counties, 56 cities, 961 boroughs, 1 incorporated town, 1,548 townships, 501 school districts, and 2,015 authorities in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. All Pennsylvanians reside within one county, one school district, and one city, town, borough or township. Local authorities are not present in all parts of the commonwealth.

In addition to these, political subdivisions, except boroughs, are further divided into classes based on but not necessarily conforming to population. The General Assembly can adopt legislation specific to any single class of political subdivision. The different classes are:

Counties: 9 Classes (First Class, Second Class, Second Class A, and Third through Eighth).

Townships: 2 Classes (First and Second Class)

Cities: 4 Classes (First Class, Second Class, Second Class A, and Third Class)

School Districts: 5 Classes (First Class, First Class A, and Second through Fourth)

Each class of municipality operates under its own code of laws setting the structure and powers of local government. These are the County Code, Third Class City Code, Borough Code, First Class Township Code, Second Class Township Code, and Public School Code.

Cities of the First Class, Second Class and Second Class A each contain only one municipality, those being Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Scranton, respectively. There are also only one first class county (Philadelphia) and one second class county (Allegheny).

There is extensive general legislation regarding municipalities that both grant powers and place restrictions on local government activities. These include things like the Municipalities Planning Code, the Sewage Facilities Act, and the Local Government Unit Debt Act. The Sunshine Law requires public agencies to discuss and act upon business only at meetings open to the public.

There are also provisions in the Commonwealth Constitution allowing municipalities to select home rule or optional forms of local government, allowing citizens to determine what structure their local government will have and what services it will perform. A home rule municipality does not have its powers and organization determined by the commonwealth legislature.

A home rule municipality can exercise any power and perform any function not prohibited by the Commonwealth Constitution, the General Assembly, or its home rule charter. There are 71 municipalities that have adopted home rule charters, including 6 counties, 19 cities, 19 boroughs and 27 townships.

One distinct benefit to Pennsylvania’s system of local government is that it allows citizens ample opportunity to participate in local government and address issues of concern to the community. In order to be more comfortable seeking an elected office in one of Pennsylvania’s municipalities, it may help to see generally what they do.

Look for part 2 in the next issue where we explore the functions of government in Pennsylvania.

No comments: