Johnstown residents may soon get the opportunity to decide if they want to change the way City Council can conduct some business regarding ordinances and administrative procedures and to eliminate the requirement for the city manager to live in the municipality.
Council plans to discuss and vote on the proposal, which includes seven possible amendments, during its regular monthly meeting on Wednesday. The ordinance would then need to pass a final vote, likely at next month’s meeting.
The charter can only be changed by referendum, so, if approved by council, the amendments would then be placed on the 2021 general election ballot for voters to accept or reject.
A council committee, consisting of Mayor Frank Janakovic, Charles Arnone and Michael Capriotti, spent several months considering options to alter the charter as part of getting Johnstown ready to leave Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities.
“One of the things that was included in the exit plan that needed to be addressed was really a review of the charter,” said Deborah Grass, the city’s Act 47 coordinator.
“It had not been reviewed since its adoption, which was in 1994. Typically, in charters, there’s a requirement to review it every so often – 10 years, 20 years, whatever. There was no requirement. But we felt strongly that they needed to look at a number of sections that might have either been redundant, or outdated or inefficient.”
Johnstown has had nine full-time or acting city managers since 2014.
The Home Rule Charter’s residency requirement is often cited as an obstacle to finding candidates to accept the job, including when the most recent six-month search failed to yield a full-time city manager. The proposal would change the charter’s language that states the full-time manager “shall” live in the city to “may.”
Acting city managers are exempt from the residency requirement.
Proponents of the switch say it will help in the search for qualified city managers who would prefer to live in areas near the city.
“From a manager from outside of the city – me, I’m telling you you’re going to have incredible trouble filling this position, so long as you have that residency requirement,” said Dan Penatzer, who was hired as the latest acting city manager on March 31. “I just don’t see why it matters. I understand the argument. I think the lone argument really – at least the primary argument – is ‘By gosh, you know, we’re paying him or her, the least he or she can do is live in the city.’ That’s fine, except that it’s not going to happen.”
Penatzer added: “The goal should be to hire the best candidate you can find.”
Those in favor of keeping the residency requirement believe the rule creates a situation where the manager has skin in the game by living in the municipality.
“How can you understand the city if you don’t live here?” asked Republican mayoral candidate John DeBartola. “You get a disconnected view if you don’t have to live in the city. I feel the manager should live here. … Shouldn’t the mayor of Johnstown be promoting people to live in the city and not making it easier for them to move out?”
The other proposed referendum questions would allow the annual budget, the capital program and contracts to be approved by motions, as opposed to needing resolutions or ordinances. In Johnstown’s case, an ordinance must pass a first and second read, meaning that, at the quickest, it takes two meetings in back-to-back months to get through the process.
Other amendments would deal with moving budget administration policies from the charter to the administrative code and removing certain items from the personnel ordinance and placing them in the personnel manual that would be dictated by collective bargaining agreements.