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Public has little say in filling local vacancies

Plus: Keeping tabs on local elected officials, budget stalemate ends, and medical marijuana data release

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

December 21, 2023
Inside this edition: How Centre County municipalities fill vacancies on governing boards, Pa.’s budget impasse ends, and Spotlight PA and the News Lab at Penn State launch a new community-based program to keep tabs on elected officials.
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Daniel Fishel / For Spotlight PA

Real quick: A review by the Centre Daily Times and Spotlight PA of three years of meeting minutes from Centre County municipalities showed how involved the public was in filling vacancies in local government.

A little more: Voters participate in local elections to pick who they want to represent them in government, but when a seat on a municipal governing board is vacant in Pennsylvania, the public has little to no say in who fills it — a situation that’s played out at least 28 times from 2020 to 2022 in Centre County.

When an elected municipal official leaves office before their term is up, their remaining colleagues can appoint a new member for the rest of the term, according to Pennsylvania law. But unlike special elections that deal with vacancies in the state legislature, state law provides little guidance on what the process should look like, and public input is not required.

In one Centre County municipality, a majority of a board of supervisors is now appointed, rather than elected. Three of the five Ferguson Township supervisors were chosen by fellow board members due to elected officials resigning. Those appointed officials have made decisions about budgets, projects, and other uses of taxpayer dollars.

In a monthslong collaboration, Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times filed dozens of open records requests with all 35 municipalities in Centre County, seeking information about how open seats were filled from 2020 to 2022. The news organizations found the appointment process — and how transparent it is — varies widely. 

While all the cases where a board filled a vacancy identified by the news organizations were conducted in open meetings accessible by the public, only three instances involved public input: Bellefonte Borough Council discussed letters from the community that expressed support for a candidate; in Benner Township, supervisors answered two questions from the public regarding their choice for the appointment; and in State College Borough, the council solicited questions from the public to use during candidate interviews.

The full story: Read more here.

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» Editor’s Note: Spotlight PA, News Lab at Penn State launch community-based program to keep tabs on local elected leaders

» Get the Data: Spotlight PA makes info on why patients qualify for medical marijuana publicly available

» A long budget impasse and partisan standoffs dominated the Pa. legislature in 2023

» Shapiro administration cancels $10.7M contract for Pa. voter roll system upgrade

» A mix of reform-minded and tough-on-crime justice bills are now law in Pa.

» A budget boost to payments for state-owned land will benefit rural Pa. counties

» Pennsylvania’s budget impasse ends as legislature agrees to boost child care tax credit, fund public defense
The News Lab at Penn State and Spotlight PA have partnered to launch Centre Documenters. 

Centre Documenters recruits, trains, and pays local documenters to attend and document government meetings in six undercovered townships across Centre County — Benner, College, Gregg, Halfmoon, Snow Shoe, and Spring.

Centre Documenters is part of a nationwide network, founded in 2018 by a community-based newsroom in Chicago. It is dedicated to building a corps of “curious citizens” equipped with the skills necessary to support local government transparency. 

Since September, the News Lab has recruited and trained 20 student documenters and three student editors. They’ve worked to navigate the challenges residents face when attending public meetings: cancellations, transportation, locating agendas, understanding the topics being discussed, and sometimes being the only people in attendance. As part of their training, documenters have attended and taken notes at 25 meetings.

Yesterday, Centre Documenters published its first newsletter, just one way to stay informed about meetings and the program’s work. In 2024, Centre Documenters will cover 30 meetings and publish two newsletters each month. 

You can find meeting notes at centredocumenters.org. Centre Documenters is also launching a texting service, allowing you to receive key takeaways and a link to meeting notes for a particular municipality or type of meeting. 

Read more about Centre Documenters here, and sign up for the newsletter here.
A snowy waterfall scene in Tioga State Forest photographed by Mike Glass.

Have a north-central Pennsylvania photo to share? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
» SC: Former majorette sues Penn State over alleged bullying by coach
» WPSU: UPMC again requiring masks in medical buildings
» NCPA: Lycoming Co. commissioners split on reassessment
» Mirror: Bellwood school district won’t release settlement info
» Courier Express: Elk Co. creates collections enforcement position 
» CDT: What happened with controversial tree removal in Milesburg
Want us to list your event? Send it to us.

» Dec. 21-31: Drive through the Valley of Lights at Little Mexico Campground in Union County.

» Dec. 23: Celebrate the winter solstice with a hike on the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Lycoming County.

» Dec. 24: “Celebrate Christmas Eve in style” with brunch at the Penn Stater’s Gardens Restaurant in Centre County.

» Dec. 25: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in downtown State College, Centre County, hosts a free Christmas Day dinner.

» Dec. 27: Winter-focused games and activities are the highlight of Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center’s Winter Wonders event in Jefferson County.
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