The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


May 11, 2009

Empty seats: Many communities struggle to fill elected offices

Councilman James Hollis knows what’s at stake if more residents don’t get involved in running Lorain Borough.

“If we don’t get some good people to come forward, we will be incorporated with the city,’’ he said at the borough ballfield.

“Our taxes most definitely would go up.’’

Lorain is facing a problem shared by many – if not most – communities in Cambria and Somerset counties: Elected offices that have no candidates.

Voters in the Lorain primary May 19 will have no one to pick as nominees for mayor or for two council seats.

Mary Jane Kuffner Hirt thinks she knows what the problem is.

Pennsylvania just has too many divisions, the IUP political science professor believes, with 2,600 municipalities and 501 school districts.

“How many of these are viable communities where people step up and run for office?’’ Hirt asks.

“Until we have a different structure, we won’t fill that ballot. Pennsylvania has too much local government.’’

Even where all the spots are covered, they may be rotated like musical chairs or people might stay in the same position for decades.

“Is that good for one person to dominate local politics for decades?’’ Hirt said.

She wants the Legislature to step in and more aggressively push for school and municipal mergers.

People don’t run for office in Lorain because the borough is so small it’s like family, said Hollis, a strapping, laid-off metal worker.

“It’s like you have sibling rivalry,’’ he said. “People’s feelings get hurt. It’s like pulling teeth. But council meetings are only a couple of hours a month.’’

Many of the elected positions going begging are for auditor, assessor or constable. Their duties can range from almost nothing, Hirt said, to being responsible for keeping the town’s books straight.

A whole spectrum of issues decided by local boards affect one’s life. They range from tax rates to zoning issues to student/teacher ratios.

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