By Jan Murphy
A measure working its way through the state House of Representatives seeks to make local elected officials take seriously the duties they have chosen to take on by running for office.
The House Local Government Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a proposed constitutional amendment that intends to grant the General Assembly the authority to establish reasons for removal of a local government official and a removal procedure.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Justin Walsh, R-Westmoreland County, initially limited the reason for local officials’ removal if they missed at least half of the scheduled meetings.
He said his bill was motivated by a situation happening in Monessen, a small city in Westmoreland County that he represents. He said the mayor there, who was elected in November 2017, as well as one of four council members have not attended a meeting in over a year, putting the onus of decision-making on the three council members who regularly attend meetings.
“I just think we need to correct this,” Walsh told the committee.
But Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton County, said the proposed constitutional amendment was too specific. He succeeded in getting the committee to go along with amending Walsh’s proposal to grant the General Assembly authority to establish the possible causes for local officials’ removal such as absenteeism from meetings and dereliction of duty.
“When we amend the constitution we want to keep it somewhat broader just to take into consideration additional circumstances that could come up in subsequent years,” Freeman said. “The other factor is it’s much easier to be able to amend a statute than it is to amend the constitution.”
Amending the constitution requires the House and Senate to approve an a measure in two consecutive legislative sessions before it can go to the voters for a ratification vote. Passing a law requires House and Senate approval and a governor’s signature in a single legislative session.
The proposed amendment would state that to remove an official, the remaining members of the governing body would pass an ordinance instructing the solicitor to petition the county court to remove the offending member. If the member is removed, the position shall be considered vacant to be filled according to existing law.
With the committee’s blessing given to this proposed constitutional amendment, the measure now advances through the state House of Representatives for consideration.