Under the current system, providing for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education is a commonwealth responsibility as stated in the Commonwealth Constitution. To carry out this responsibility, the General Assembly created school districts and school boards. It conferred broad legal powers to the local boards, making them autonomous in many of their operations. Rules and regulations of the State Board, guidelines of the Department of Education, opinions and interpretations of the state attorney general and court decrees all influence local board operation. State and federal mandates also pose significant restrictions on the authority of school boards.
School boards have three main functions: planning, setting policy and evaluating results. School boards can elect superintendents, hire employees, levy taxes, provide for school buildings and grounds, adopt rules and regulations for school activities, and provide for special education in addition to other functions. This can be an excellent opportunity for a candidate to be involved in the local community, provided the candidate is prepared to address the numerous functions and restrictions school board members must face.
Counties serve as agents of the commonwealth for law enforcement, judicial administration, and the conduct of elections. They are also responsible for property assessment and planning. They maintain hospitals, provide homes for the aged and perform welfare functions. They may be involved in solid waste disposal and public health, and may support public libraries and community colleges.
Generally, the governing body of counties is a three-member board of commissioners, with a number of other offices generally independent of the commissioners. These include sheriff, district attorney, prothonotary, clerk of courts, register of wills, recorder of deeds, and two jury commissioners. There is also either a controller or three auditors and the treasurer who serve as the financial officers. The governing body has the power to appoint certain officers and levy certain taxes.
This is the basic layout of county government. Six counties, Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lehigh, and Northampton have adopted home rule charters, which may modify how the county government is constructed. This may include a county executive or alternative in place of three commissioners, and may alter the number and structure of row offices. In these counties it is beneficial to determine what elected offices are available. There are many elected positions that may be suitable for candidates with an interest in a specific area at the county level.
Cities, town(s), boroughs and townships also have governing bodies that have authority to make policy decisions, levy taxes, borrow money, and direct the administration of government through appointees. These entities have broad powers to secure the health and welfare of residents, maintain local roads, and provide for fire and police protection, parking and traffic control, local planning and zoning, parks and recreation, garbage collection, health services, libraries, licensing of businesses, and code enforcement. These functions may vary slightly depending on the stated powers within the specific codes, however they all perform the same basic functions.
Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton all have home rule charters. All have strong mayors with broad appointive powers and with veto power that may be overridden with a two-thirds vote of the city council. Candidates for these offices should be aware of the mayoral authority and the limitation of council positions before seeking office.
Third Class Cities:
These cities operate under a commission form of government. The mayor and four other council members are elected at-large, constituting the commission. A controller and treasurer are also elected. Some cities have adopted a council-mayor form of government with five, seven or nine members of council, where the mayor is elected separately. Others have adopted a council-manager form whereby a manager is appointed by the council. Still, 16 others have adopted a home rule plan. Please check with the particular city to determine what offices are up for election.
Most boroughs operate under a weak-mayor form of government. The mayor is one of seven council members elected at-large. In boroughs divided into wards, at least one and no more than two council members are elected from each ward. A tax collector and auditors are also elected. There are 20 boroughs with home rule charters, and this may modify offices up for election.
First class townships are governed by 5 commissioners elected at-large or up to 15 elected by wards. A treasurer, tax collector and three auditors or a controller are also elected.
Far and away, most municipal corporations (over 1,400) in Pennsylvania are second class townships. These are governed by a three-member board of supervisors, or by referendum, a five-member board. A tax collector and three auditors are also elected.
There are also a small number of townships that have adopted home rule charters, so it may be worthwhile to inquire about elected offices in your municipality before seeking elected office.
These are not general government entities and do not have elected positions. They are established by municipalities, however often function independently. They may only operate within the authority granted to them by the establishing bodies.
The Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania would like to encourage citizens to participate in their local government by becoming elected officials. It is an opportunity to be involved in the community and have an impact on decisions affecting the lives of you and your neighbors.
The information in this article was provided in large part by The Pennsylvania Manual, which is published through the Bureau of Publications and Paperwork Management, Department of General Services of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.