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How to keep local officials accountable

Plus: Penn State gender pay gap among worst of Big Ten schools.

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This is Talk of the Town, a free weekly newsletter delivering top news from State College and the surrounding region.

August 10, 2023
⭐ Support local investigative journalism! If each Talk of the Town subscriber gives just $15/month, we will meet our fundraising goal for Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau this year! Contribute now.
Inside this edition: Takeaways from our recent event on how Pennsylvanians can be involved in local government, Penn State's salary data shows gender pay gap, and free speech group criticizes Daily Collegian cut.

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.”

Min Xian, local accountability reporter

"Improving and expanding opportunities for children remains a priority for me, and I consider this to be unfinished business all parties must work together on as we move forward."

—Gov. Josh Shapiro on his ongoing support for a private school voucher program despite his recent line-item veto
Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
We've been challenged to raise $25,000 by Aug. 19 to unlock a HUGE $25,000 matching gift. That means your contribution will be DOUBLED. Help sustain Spotlight PA's vital reporting for the remainder of 2023 now.

Thank you to the 146 people who have given so far, including Cheryl Y., who said, "You provide information on local and state issues that I can't find anywhere else!" Join Cheryl and make a tax-deductible gift in support of Spotlight PA now »
» 5 takeaways from our ‘Lost in Transition’ project about Pa.’s struggling mortgage assistance program

» Salary data show Penn State's Penn gender pay gap is among the worst in the Big Ten

» Property tax and rent rebate program will soon serve more older Pennsylvanians
A summer thunderstorm photographed from Moore Hill, south of Emporium, Cameron County — via Brian Reid | Eventide Light Photography.

Want to be featured here? Send your best local pics to talkofthetown@spotlightpa.org.
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» Altoona Mirror: More broadband funds pledged in Blair County
» CDT: New hospital, medical office on track for 2024 opening
» Sun-Gazette: Deer are eating up corn farmers’ profits
» TribLIVE: Free speech group criticizes Penn State's newspaper cut » WPSU: Lock Haven’s water system could change ownership
Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
Want us to list your event? Send it to us.

» Aug. 10-12: The LH JAMS festival takes over Main Street in Lock Haven.

» Aug. 10-12: Bradford hosts its Festa Italiana with live music, plenty of food, and more.

» Aug. 11-13: Traditional music, food, and dance highlight the Mount Jewett Swedish Festival.

» Aug. 12: The annual Hops and Vines Craft Beer, Wine and Spirits Festival returns to downtown Tyrone.

» Aug. 13-19: Enjoy agricultural exhibits, drag racing, and carnival rides at the McKean County Fair.

An anagram is a word, phrase, or name formed by rearranging the letters of another. For example, “spotlight” also forms “stoplight.”

Decode the anagram and send your answer to talkofthetown@spotlightpa.org. We’ll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA State College swag.

Good luck!

Last week’s answer: Talks

Congrats to those who answered correctly: Randolph J., Martha D., Coache, Don H., Tish M., and Thomas S.
Do you have events, community shoutouts, questions about our region, or tips on stories that we should pursue? Email our team.
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