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Local Government

Pa. voters play little role in choosing who fills vacant municipal offices

by Min Xian of Spotlight PA State College and Halie Kines of the Centre Daily Times |

An illustration of four elected officials sitting at a table with a mystery person in the final seat.
Daniel Fishel / For Spotlight PA

This story was produced collaboratively by the Centre Daily Times and the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for the bureau’s regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

STATE COLLEGE — 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 to serve until the next municipal election, 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.

“We were, in a sense, filling in for an election,” said Evan Myers, a former and incoming State College Borough Council member who participated in appointing a vacant council seat in 2020.

“We felt that it was important for the residents to hear what the people who had presented themselves for consideration had to say, how they conducted themselves, what they thought about the issues that we were facing, just as somebody might give if they’re actually facing the voters for an election,” he said.

How vacancies get filled

Relocation, resignation, and death are common reasons why elected officials leave their positions before their terms expire and create vacancies.

Vacancy procedures come with several important time limits, according to Pennsylvania law. In most cases, a vacancy is created when a resignation is publicly accepted by a majority vote or on the date the tendered resignation becomes effective — whichever is later.

In the rare case when a council or board does not have enough remaining members to constitute a quorum, a resignation is automatically accepted 45 days after it’s submitted.

An accepted resignation kicks off a 30-day window for the remaining members to appoint someone who qualifies — a registered voter living in the municipality for more than one year prior to the appointment. In Centre County, two home rule municipalities get 45 days to do the same.

Because an even number of votes usually decide the appointment, ties can happen, which is where state code allows for the municipality’s vacancy board or the county’s court of common pleas to break a draw.

But unlike in an election, voters do not get a direct say. Pennsylvania law does not require boards or councils to take public input in this process, nor does it direct them to screen or ultimately choose interested candidates in a certain way.

Patchwork approach

Through dozens of public records requests, Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times identified 28 vacancies in 18 Centre County boroughs and townships between 2020 and 2022.

In six instances, the elected officials resigned because they were moving outside their municipal boundaries, which disqualified them for serving. Four said they were starting new jobs that could conflict with their public office. One had been elected to the state legislature, and two died. A reason was not always provided with every vacancy.

State law does not require formal solicitation of candidates for a vacancy through a public notice, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which Spotlight PA and the CDT are members. However, she added, the public should still be offered the chance to comment prior to any vote.

In at least 14 vacancies the newsrooms identified, elected officials advertised the position, solicited interested candidates, and interviewed them in some way. Eight appointments were made without discussion among the remaining officials, and six happened at the same meeting where resignations were accepted.

State College and Ferguson Township — the most populated municipalities in the county — had some of the most extensive processes in terms of the amount of time they spent filling the vacancies, the number of meetings convened, and the number of candidates they received interest from. They are the only two municipalities with home rule charters in Centre County, although their charters are not necessarily more detailed than state codes.

The process can play out differently within the same municipality. For an April 2021 vacancy on the Bellefonte Borough Council, interested candidates gave presentations to the council, according to meeting minutes. But another opening there a few months later was filled without any presentations, meeting minutes show.

Transparency is key

Pennsylvania law leaves a lot of room for officials to tailor how they fill empty seats. In State College, council members argued at length in 2020 and 2022 over how to balance fairness, transparency, and finding the most qualified candidate within the time limit.

This is a stark contrast to other municipalities, like Gregg, Huston, and Worth Townships, which accepted a supervisor’s resignation and appointed a new member at the same meeting without deliberation, according to meeting minutes.

The lack of direction from the state can create confusion or the potential for improper proceedings.

When Ferguson supervisors appointed a new member in August 2022, the board asked candidates to send in a letter of interest. Three candidates then had an individual interview with the board during advertised special meetings. After a brief deliberation, each supervisor sent an email to the township manager with either a “yes,” “no,” or “pass” vote for each candidate.

One candidate received enough “yes” votes to be the clear winner. The board then formally voted to appoint them to the board.

But that raises questions about whether the full process should’ve taken place in public view.

Centrice Martin, manager of Ferguson Township, wrote in an email that the board follows the process in the charter. If the board chair chooses to have a voting ballot process, the board in the past has discussed or deliberated before the voting ballot submission, she said.

“The process can be held without a voting ballot process and/or with or without interviews. The deliberation on the applicants being considered must be done, and has been done, in a publicly advertised meeting in accordance with Sunshine Act,” Martin said.

In Port Matilda, an earnest effort backfired when the remaining council came up with an impromptu voting process using sticky notes, but ended up having to redo the appointment.

Mark Lively, president of the Port Matilda Borough Council, “apologized that he handled the voting inappropriately,” according to the borough’s February 2022 meeting minutes. The borough solicitor informed the board that instead of members voting for multiple candidates to see who gets a majority of votes, each candidate must be brought up for votes separately.

“I thought [I was] doing something fair, but it turns out that what I did was the wrong way of doing it,” Lively said, according to the minutes. The council changed the process and ended up appointing the same candidate as before.

Mistakes happen in local government, and elected leaders can remedy them by taking corrective action. Melewsky said the key is to ensure official actions take place in front of the public.

“The Sunshine Act was amended in the mid-’90s to expressly prohibit local elected officials from holding private sessions to discuss filling a vacancy in elected office,” she said.

“When elected officials step into the shoes of voters, it is critically important that voters can witness and participate in the process,” Melewsky added.

State law is “almost kind of silent” on how boards should fill a vacancy, Myers, the State College council member, said. “I personally believe that the voters should have the final say, and in the case of the law of filling [a] vacancy, they don’t get that. … So I think our attempt was to try to come as close as possible to that.”

John Brenner, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League — a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for effective local government — sees the process differently.

Brenner said that filling vacancies automatically has voters’ input because the officials making the appointments were elected to represent them. And if an appointed member runs for election, it will be directly in the voters’ hands.

He added that league members, according to how seldom the issue comes up, don't seem to be especially concerned about it relative to other local government concerns.

“It’s really up to the local governments to make their decisions. We advise them to make good decisions based on … common sense but they have to look at their own individual municipal code … and if they’re having any issues with that, then we’re happy to take a look at it and see what we can do to help,” Brenner said.

Additionally, he said it’s in the best interest of taxpayers for municipalities to handle vacancies as efficiently as possible.

Vacancies in local government are not uncommon, he said, and some smaller municipalities in Pennsylvania have had “serious trouble recruiting new people.”

The larger issue, Brenner said, is that people aren’t as civically engaged with local government as they are at the state or federal level, even though the local level has more impact on their daily lives. Township supervisors and borough councils make decisions about streets, lights, public safety, parks, planning and zoning, and more.

“Those have more of a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of the residents than the presidential election or the United States Senate election. Or, oftentimes, the governor or state legislator. These are local decisions made by local people that have a huge impact on your quality of life,” he said.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that a person appointed to fill a local government vacancy serves in that position until the next municipal election.

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