Our Town Terre Hill

Aerial view of Terre Hill from Broad Street in front of the Borough Hall.

In a handful of municipalities and school boards across Lancaster County, no Democrats or Republicans have made a bid to fill open seats, which could mean voters won’t have a say in who sets policy in their communities.

Of the county’s 60 municipalities, eight still have open spots on the ballot. And in places like Terre Hill Borough, where three of seven council seats are open with no one yet stepping up to claim them, that could cause problems.

Christa Miller, Lancaster County’s chief clerk of elections, said it’s not uncommon to have municipal elections with unfilled seats, and the Pennsylvania Municipal League, which advocates for effective local government, recognizes it as a statewide trend. John Brenner, the league’s executive director, said older boroughs like Terre Hill have dealt with unfilled seats for years.

If the Nov. 7 general election comes and goes and no one has stepped up to serve, Brenner said the municipality’s remaining elected officials will appoint people to the open seats — the same process a governing body follows when someone resigns. The only requirement to serve is the person must be a registered voter and have lived in their municipality for at least a year.

Amy Fasano, president of the League of Women Voters of Lancaster County, said appointments can create setbacks in the democratic process because the decision is not in the hands of voters. Appointments could result in political cronyism or uneven playing fields across political parties if elected officials only encourage their friends or fellow party members to apply.

“We do feel that democracy loses with appointments versus elections,” Fasano said. “However, a good council or board will ensure that both or more parties are represented and that the person that’s appointed is qualified.”

State law does not outline specific guidelines for appointing new members. In many cases, a governing body will put out a call for applications for the position and appoint someone during a public meeting. For example, last November, after Izzy Smith-Wade-El resigned his seat on Lancaster City Council to run for state office, the council set up public interviews so voters could see the full selection process.

The body has 30 days to fill a vacancy. If it can’t, the decision goes to the municipality’s vacancy board, which is made up of its elected officials along with one appointed resident who is made chairperson. That group has 15 days to find the right person before a county court judge steps in and appoints someone.

But it doesn’t often come to that. Peter Wulfhorst, a government educator for Penn State Extension, could not recall a single time in his 36-year career in Pike County municipal government when an appointment had to go all the way up the chain of command.

In most cases, people step up to the plate in the end, Wulfhorst said.

And people who missed getting their names on the primary ballot can still run for election. Independent and third-party candidates have until Aug. 2 to get signatures and file nomination papers with the county to run in the Nov. 7 general election. Write-in candidates can begin campaigning any time, including for the spring primary, Miller said.

Jeff Greenburg, senior adviser on election administration for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Committee of Seventy, said smaller communities can usually run successful write-in campaigns because people know each other.

For example, Gary Hartranft, a Republican council member in Terre Hill who is up for reelection, said he intends to run again, but Miller confirmed he did not file paperwork with the county for the primary. He could choose to campaign as a write-in candidate.

Reshaping local government

Falling back on appointments is not an ideal scenario, Greenburg said, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If no one throws their name in, it’s the only choice.

People choose not to run for office for many reasons. Some people are satisfied with how their local government runs; others are uninformed about what local officials do, Greenburg said. But he believes a major obstacle to running for office is accessibility.

The process of gathering signatures and filing nomination papers is complicated, and potential candidates have few resources to turn to when they need help. Some people rely on their political parties or incumbents for guidance, Greenburg said, but that proves to be a challenge in small, rural communities where there aren’t as many people with institutional knowledge.

Smaller municipalities are more likely to struggle to find candidates, Brenner said, but it can happen in bigger communities as well. Christiana, the least-populated borough in the county, needs one more person to make a bid for one out of three open council seats. The county’s largest borough, Ephrata, is in the same position.

Location also could be a factor contributing to a lack of interest, Brenner said. Most of the municipalities with open races are in rural, agricultural areas on the eastern side of the county.

Wulfhorst said the commonwealth is unique in how it functions, with elected officials at the state, county and local levels. Some local governments oversee populations as small as 300 people.

There have been conversations at the state level to change the system of government because some believe there are too many bureaucratic layers, Wulfhorst said. But that structure isn’t likely to change anytime soon, he said, because local governments can provide a direct audience for “special interests.”

“You interact with the local government more than you would the state or federal government,” he said.

Greenburg believes it would benefit political newcomers if the process to run for local offices was simplified. Instead of filing multiple forms and obtaining signatures, people could sign a declaration affirming their candidacy. That could take away some fear and bolster interest, he said.

But if a municipality continues to struggle to fill open seats, it could be time for institutional change, Greenburg said. That could mean consolidating into a nearby municipality or officials voting to downsize the board.

“At some point,” he said, “these municipalities need to take a look in the mirror.”

As far as getting people interested in serving with a local government, Greenburg said people who end up running are often already involved and self-motivated. People are more likely to run for office when they have been exposed to the government through attending meetings.

Fasano said education is key to securing qualified candidates for any office. This could be education on the role of an elected official but also on how to run for office. Fasano said the League of Women Voters can guide any potential candidates to the right resources to kickstart a successful campaign.

Brenner said current elected officials need to encourage residents to get involved and step up to fill seats — whether it’s an elected position or an appointed seat on a planning commission — to ensure voters continue to have a choice.

“While you’re in office, it’s the perfect opportunity to encourage other people.”

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