Municipal Referenda in the 2015 Election

Mt LebanonThe 2015 elections in Allegheny County featured two municipal referenda: one for Bethel Park and one for Mt. Lebanon, and both concerning changes to the Home Rule Charter for each.  As a resident of Mt. Lebanon, I was embarrassed to find that I had no clue about the context of the proposed change, which was phrased as follows:

Shall Section 321. Ordinances Authorizing Indebtedness, of the Municipality of Mt. Lebanon Home Rule Charter be amended to require that one notice be published seven (7) to thirty (30) days before debt is incurred, as more fully described in Mt. Lebanon Ordinance No. 3268?

At first glance it sounded good; it is perfectly reasonable (and in fact, required by state law) to require that a notice be published a reasonable amount of time before a new municipal debt is incurred. The trouble is that I had no idea what this was being changed from, and therefore I was not informed as to the potential effect of that this change would have.  Was this a brand-new provision? (I did not know about the state’s requirements at the time I voted.) Did this make the requirement more stringent than before?  Less stringent? I did not know, and therefore cast an uninformed vote.  This, as stated before, is embarrassing to me to admit and was one of the impetuses to start this blog.

Fortunately, after researching it after the fact (I cannot emphasize how much I recommend all voters to research issues on the ballot before an election), it turns out to be almost utterly innocuous.  I could only easily find one article on the web about it, from Mt. Lebanon Magazine, which, fortunately, seems to sum it up very well. This referendum item is the result of a review of the Home Rule Charter and is intended to make the notice requirements less stringent while still complying with state law.  Previously, the charter stipulated that a debt-related notice should be posted two times, but this was seen as more effort than was necessary.  The measure passed quite comfortably, with 6,070 votes for (84.17%) and 1,142 votes against (15.83%), so it was quite uncontroversial and is enshrined in the Mt. Lebanon Home Rule Charter.  1,475 voters (16.98%)  who submitted ballots did not cast a vote on this issue, and I wonder what percentage of voters also did not know what this measure actually meant and either skipped it or voted based upon the text alone.

One thing I took away from this is that I will try to find a way to be informed of these and other municipal notices when they are published.  The obviously will (normally) not be front headline matters in the Post-Gazette or Tribune-Review.

Bethel ParkThe Municipality of Bethel Park had its own referendum (called a “Home Rule Charter Question” on the ballot), which was much, much more contentious.  The text was as follows:

Shall Article VI, Public Safety, of the Bethel Park Home Rule Charter be amended to provide that the Chief of Police of the Municipality of Bethel Park Police Department shall be directly responsible to the Municipal Manager of the Municipality of Bethel Park, rather than to the Council of the Municipality of Bethel Park?

Unlike the Mt. Lebanon referendum, this succinctly makes it clear what the Charter will be changed from and what it will be changed to.  Once again, a quick web search only turns up one article about the referendum, but The Almanac doesn’t go into much detail as to what the practical ramifications of the change might be, only that the Bethel Park council was unanimous in voting to add it to the ballot and that the original language was said to be “a mistake”.

Apparently a large number of people in the Municipality disagreed as the change barely squeaked by with a vote of 3,357 (50.69%) in favor and 3,265 (49.31%) against, with 499 (7.00%) ballots submitted leaving the question blank, a notable difference from the number of missing votes on the Mt. Lebanon referendum. I will assume that this issue was better known within Bethel Park despite the lack of obvious reportage, and therefore more voters felt comfortable in casting a vote. However, it might also just be a case of the wording making it clearer what would change in the charter versus what the charter would change to as in the Mt. Lebanon referendum. Simply reading the text makes it relatively clear what the vote is truly for, and an otherwise uninformed voter would likely feel more comfortable making a vote based solely on what was printed on the ballot.  Either way, the 28.22% of registered voters who cast a ballot on this issue were plainly more divided than the Bethel Park Council, but the matter passed regardless.