Proposal stands to eliminate mayoralty A Norristown commission drafted a plan for the Home Rule charter. It would grant more power to council.

Posted: December 29, 2003

NORRISTOWN — The urge to tinker with the dysfunctional government structure that has crippled Norristown will result in a proposal to write the mayor out of a job.

The Home Rule Charter Study Commission, a nine-member body that voters elected in the spring to consider changes to Norristown's Home Rule charter, is working on its final draft for Borough Council approval. State law empowers the commission to make recommendations on charter changes to the council, which then decides whether to present those changes for voter ratification, most likely in the May 2004 primary election.

The draft plan would significantly alter the way Norristown governs itself by eliminating the position of mayor, vesting most power in the seven-member council, and establishing a municipal administrator who would run the daily borough operations.

Members of the commission say that the proposed change has nothing to do with Mayor Ted LeBlanc and everything to do with the way Norristown government works - or doesn't. Norristown just instituted a 60 percent property tax hike that is part of an austerity plan to pull itself out of near-bankruptcy, and repeated stalemates between council and LeBlanc have been part of the borough's inability to fix itself.

The problem stems from the way Norristown set itself up nearly two decades ago, when voters wrote the charter. From its inception in 1812 until 1986, Norristown was a borough governed by Pennsylvania law regulating boroughs. But in 1983 residents voted to become a Home Rule municipality, writing a charter that eliminated the old ward system and established a council and mayor. That charter went into effect in 1986.

But elected officials agree that the charter invested too much power in the mayor. Though council sets the budget, it has little say about policy decisions and less power to make sure the mayor follows the budget. LeBlanc, a Republican, and the predominantly Democratic council went to court in 2002 just to establish a budget, and the 2004 budget is a result of a court-approved agreement that both sides signed.

"It's not Ted - it's the position that his position puts council in," said commission member Al Cianciulli, a Republican who has supported LeBlanc and who has twice run for council.

Commission members say Norristown, if it hopes to further its revitalization efforts, needs to present a consistent front. "The only way they can really operate with one voice is if council is, in fact, in charge," said Bill DeAngelis, a Democrat who was mayor from 1990 to 1994.

DeAngelis was on the government study commission in 1983 that converted Norristown from a borough governed by 12 council members elected from wards to a Home Rule municipality governed by a seven-member council - four elected from districts and three at large - and an elected executive, the mayor.

"What we didn't expect to have was continual conflict," DeAngelis said.

But power struggles have been the rule since.

The new charter would invest greater power in council by authorizing it to hire, supervise and fire key staff, including the municipal administrator, the solicitor, finance director, municipal engineer, director of public safety, planning director, and public works director. These offices now answer to LeBlanc.

LeBlanc doesn't support the changes. "I've always said that the charter gives the mayor too much power," he said. "But there's got to be some middle road here."

LeBlanc said the mayor's position gives residents a point person to go to with concerns, an executive officer whom they are entitled to elect. He said the commission may as well return to the old ward system if it is going to have council running Norristown. He also sees the commission as a group of anti-LeBlanc people.

Commission members say politics and personalities are not involved in the discussion. The panel includes Democrats and Republicans, several of whom have switched parties at one time or another, such as former council members April Young, now a Republican, and Joe Epifanio, now a Democrat. They have watched the turmoil under the current government, and they also saw how former Councilman Paul Santangelo, who held his position for 60 years, dominated the borough under the old ward system. The commission is also being advised by the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

If politics become a factor, LeBlanc will be at a disadvantage with the Democratic council, which will decide what to present to voters.

But early signs indicate a mix of opinion that crosses party lines.

Councilwoman Marge Hunsicker, a Democrat, said she was concerned about the ramifications of investing council members with so much decision-making responsibility while their positions remained only part time. In addition, the administrator might be susceptible to the whims of council, whose makeup changes with elections every two years.

"I understand the reasoning behind their proposal. I'm just curious how it will work," Hunsicker said.

But Hunsicker pointed out that the administrator system had worked well in most surrounding communities, such as Upper Merion, East Norriton and West Norriton.

Rochelle Griffin-Culbreath, a Democrat who has been critical of LeBlanc, said Norristown, with its large number of rental properties and dense population, could not be compared with surrounding communities. She believes the study commission is focusing too much on the borough under LeBlanc.

"I think they're being reactive because of the way the town is being run right now," she said.

Griffin-Culbreath would keep the mayor's position and make it a full-time position with commensurate salary, but would give council power over contracts and certain jobs, such as solicitor.

Hunsicker and Griffin-Culbreath predicted that there would be a good deal of debate before any proposal is put forward.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 610-313-8173 or jshields@phillynews.com.

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