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The League of Women Voters of Centre County

The League of Women Voters of Centre County published in the Centre Daily Times four articles on the importance of local government and the role of local elected officials. These articles, which are reprinted below, include the Judiciary, County offices, Borough and Township offices, and local School Boards.


The Importance of Local Government

The Judiciary

By The League of Women Voters of Centre County

August 2023

Local government is the most accessible level of government. It makes communities strong and resilient through shared involvement. To understand the impact of local government, the League of Women Voters of Centre County (LWVCC) is providing a four-part series about local offices. The first focuses on the judicial system.


According to the Pennsylvania Judicial Center:


Justices serve on the Supreme Court and judges serve on the lower courts. Before either can hold their positions, they must meet certain requirements, including citizenship and residency. All but magisterial district judges must be members of the Pennsylvania Bar. All are subject to standards of conduct administered and supervised by the PA Supreme Court.


Judges are elected in odd-numbered years and serve an unlimited number of terms but they must step down when they reach 75 years old. They may continue to serve part-time as "senior judges" until they reach 78, the age of mandatory retirement.


The Supreme, Superior, Commonwealth and Common Pleas justices and judges are elected to 10-year terms. When their term expires, a statewide yes-or-no-vote for retention is conducted. Retention means another ten-year term. If not retained, the governor appoints a replacement, subject to Senate approval, until a special election can be held.


The Supreme Court of PA is the highest court in the Commonwealth. The Court exists to protect our rights and freedoms by upholding the Constitution and preventing legislative or executive branch overreach. For example, if the Court determines that a law is written in such a way that it is unconstitutional, the Court must strike it down. The legislature, which writes the laws, can choose to rewrite the law to meet the standards of the constitution, or propose a constitutional amendment. The executive branch enforces the laws. The Court meets in Harrisburg and chooses its cases, with the exception of mandatory death penalty appeals, and certain appeals from the Commonwealth Court. It has seven justices and receives over 3,000 cases annually but accepts only 100-150 cases.


The Superior Court of PA is based in Harrisburg and has 15 judges. It hears appeals in criminal, civil and family law cases. Most appeals are decided by written briefs; however, when the parties request oral argument, those sessions are usually heard by panels of three judges in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, or Pittsburgh.


The Commonwealth Court of PA is an appellate Court based in Harrisburg. It has jurisdiction over state and local governments and regulatory agencies. Nine judges preside over the Court and hear appeals from state agencies and certain cases from the Courts of Common Pleas. The Court may also function as a trial court in cases brought by or against the Commonwealth government and cases regarding elections.


The Courts of Common Pleas are trial Courts that hear civil, criminal and family law cases. The Courts receive cases plus appeals from local magistrates and state and local government agencies. The Courts are organized into 60 judicial districts. Each district has multiple judges elected to 10-year terms with a president judge and court administrator in each judicial district. The LWVCC thanks Court of Common Pleas Judge Katherine Oliver for her contributions to this article.


Magisterial District Court is where most people experience the judicial system for the first time. There are 500 judges who handle 2,000,000 cases/year, most of which are traffic violations, disorderly conduct, underage drinking, landlord disputes or property damage. MDJs determine if criminal cases go on to the Court of Common Pleas, perform marriage ceremonies, set bail, issue protection from abuse and arrest orders. MDJs, who do not have to be attorneys, must take a month-long certification class and pass a qualifying exam though attorneys elected as MDJs are exempt from this class and exam. MDJs are elected to a 6-year term. The LWVCC thanks retired MDJ Tom Jordan for his contributions to this article.


The Importance of Local Elections

County Government Offices

By the League of Women Voters of Centre County

August 2023


Local government is the most accessible level of government. It makes communities strong and resilient through shared involvement. To understand the impact of local government, the League of Women Voters of Centre County (LWVCC) is providing a four-part series about local offices. This second installment focuses on county government offices which have county-wide elections for four-year terms. The LWVCC thanks Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins for his contributions to this article.

Pennsylvania counties’ class size is based on the population within the county.

Commissioner

This information is from The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania:

Each major political party nominates two individuals and the electorate votes for two individuals. The top three vote-getters become the Board of Commissioners. This assures minority party representation. Commissioners are responsible for policy-making, fiscal management, administration of county affairs, serving on advisory boards and representing interests of the community with state and federal officials. Commissioners can regulate through ordinances, resolutions and laws regarding public health, parks, solid waste management, roads and highways, zoning and land use, county personnel policies, and more. They approve the annual budget, balancing county needs with the ability to raise revenues, and pay for mandated state and federal programs. Commissioners shape the county’s future through long-range planning.

Information for the following offices is from centrecountypa.gov.


Controller

The Controller administers finances: accounting, payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, and retiree benefits. Through internal and external auditing, this office ensures that the county is achieving honest, efficient management and full accountability. Financial and tax reports are provided to county departments to assist with budgetary management.


Sheriff

Sheriff is the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the county. The Sheriff’s Deputies: serve eviction, protection from abuse and custody orders; apprehend warranted persons; transport prisoners; enforce vehicle violations; issue firearms carry licenses; manage medication disposal boxes; provide security for county courthouse, buildings and airport; patrol rails-to-trails and Grange Fair; and assist with PSU home football games.


Treasurer

Treasurer receives and disburses monies including the Retirement Fund. This office distributes payroll checks to approximately 550 employees on a bi-to-weekly basis and 800 general expense checks monthly. Treasurer serves as hotel tax collector, sells hunting/fishing/dog and sports firearm licenses, invests with local banks, sells Games and Raffle licenses and permits all of which generate revenue for the state and county.


Prothonotary

Prothonotary is responsible for records of the Courts of Common Pleas civil cases and for records from appellate courts in both civil and criminal cases. This office manages bail money; maintains approximately 6,000 civil cases and 2,500 criminal cases; processes 1,000 passport applications; and is responsible for naturalization of approximately 30 new citizens annually.


Recorder of Deeds

Recorder maintains legal documents pertaining to real estate, receiving Real Estate Transfer Taxes, disbursing annual over $5.6 million to 37 political subdivisions and six school districts, collecting and distributing fees for the Administrative Office of PA Courts, assisting in generating over $5,000,000 in revenue for PA and approximately $850,000 for Centre County annually. Office maintains Veterans Military Discharge documents.


Register of Wills

Register of Wills is responsible for probating wills and granting letters of administration when persons die with no will. Register maintains records of wills; estate inventories; and collects state inheritance tax. Office maintains birth and death records through 1905; (after 1906, records are available from the PA Department of Health). Office issues marriage licenses, maintains guardianship papers for minors and incapacitated persons, and maintains adoption papers.


Coroner

Coroner investigates the circumstance, manner, and cause of deaths: suicide, accident, suspected homicide, or natural death where no physician is in attendance. Office performs autopsies, collects specimens, analyzes results to determine the cause of death, and completes the death certificate. Coroner determines if there is a public health threat from a communicable disease or through product liability and testifies in cases of criminal prosecution.


The Importance of Local Government

Borough and Township Offices

By the League of Women Voters of Centre County

September 13, 2023


Local government is the most accessible level of government. It makes communities strong and resilient through shared involvement. To understand the impact of local government, the League of Women Voters of Centre County (LWVCC) is providing a four-part series about local offices. This third installment focuses on borough and township government offices.


The LWVCC thanks the PA Governor’s Center for Local Government Services and the PA Department of Community and Economic Development for the following information produced and published by them as the Citizen’s Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government,

It’s easy to lose track of who does what when it comes to local government in Pennsylvania. Each of us lives in one of 67 counties, in one of 2,560 municipalities and in one of the state’s 500 school districts. That means, in addition to having one state representative and one state senator, every Pennsylvanian has government officials representing them at the county level, the municipal level and the school board level.


The different layers of government are classified by state lawmakers and are based on population per the PA Constitution. Townships are the most common form of municipal government followed by boroughs; there are1,546 townships and 959 boroughs in PA. Both are governed by state laws. These local levels of government implement most of the services we use on a daily basis: infrastructure, parks and recreation, police and fire protection, EMS services, garbage and sewer management, water safety, libraries, museums, swimming pools, senior centers and the administration of local and state laws, all of which directly contribute to our quality of life.


Borough Elected Officials

Boroughs cover a smaller but more densely populated area than townships. Borough councilpersons are salaried and function under the Borough Code. Their work is mainly legislative. They enact laws and ordnances that guide services not otherwise provided for which affect all residents. They also pass budgets and levy taxes to support those services.

Councilpersons must live within the borough for at least one year, maintain residency during the term, be a registered voter and are elected to four-year overlapping terms. Other elected officials of the borough are tax collector, auditor and constable. These positions are also salaried, officials must live within the borough for at least one year and maintain residency during their terms and be a registered voter. The tax collector, elected to a four-year term, may be required to take a class, pass an examination, and must qualify for bond and then collects taxes. The auditor, elected to a four-year term, performs an annual audit of all borough department accounts. The constable, elected to a six-year term, enforces the laws, has the power to arrest, protects polling places, transports prisoners, and assists the courts.


Township Elected Officials

Townships have a smaller population but cover a larger more rural area than boroughs. Township supervisors are salaried and function under the Township Code. Their duties are mainly legislative, enacting laws and ordnances to guide basic services not otherwise provided, such as those previously listed. They are responsible for passing budgets and levying taxes.


A township supervisor must be a resident of the township for at least one year, maintain residency during the term, be a registered voter and they are elected to six-year overlapping terms. Other elected officials of the township are tax collector, auditor and constable. These positions are also salaried, these officials must live within the borough for at least one year and maintain residency during their terms, and be a registered voter. The tax collector may have to take a class and pass an examination, must qualify for bond and when elected to a four-year term, collects taxes. Auditor, elected to a four-year term, performs an annual audit of all township department accounts. The constable, elected to a six-year term, enforces the laws, has the power to arrest, protects polling places, transports prisoners, and assists the courts.



The Importance of Local Government

School Board Directors

By the League of Women Voters

October 2023

Local government is the most accessible level of government. It makes communities strong and resilient through shared involvement. To understand the impact of local government, the League of Women Voters of Centre County (LWVCC) has provided a four-part series about local offices. This is the final installment and focuses on school board directors.


The League of Women Voters of Centre County thanks the PA School Board Association for the following information found at https://www.psba.org/


Public education is fundamentally a state responsibility and was established under the PA state constitution: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education . . .” and “recognizes that school districts have the status of a unit of local government.” The powers and duties of school board directors are outlined in the state’s Public School Code, written in 1949.


The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and State Board of Education oversees 500 public school districts, more than 170 public charter schools, public cyber charter schools, Career and Technology Centers/Vocational Technical schools, public Intermediate Units, the education of youth in State Juvenile Correctional Institutions, Head Starts and publicly funded preschools, community colleges, and school libraries. The agencies administer the laws and regulations that control the state's public education system.


There are school boards for each of the 500 public school districts. A school board is a legislative body of citizens called school directors, elected locally and who serve as the governing body of each public school district. School directors function as agents of the commonwealth. There are five school districts in Centre County: Bald Eagle Area, Bellefonte Area, Penns Valley Area, Philipsburg-Osceola Area, and State College Area. For the 2023 school year, there were 34 public schools in Centre County which served 14,283 students (there were 39 private schools, serving 2,523 private students).


Requirements for school board directors are: U.S. citizens, at least 18 years old by election, resident of the school district for at least one year, registered voter and have no felony convictions. The Pennsylvania School Code requires nine school directors, elected for four-year terms with five elected in one municipal election and four elected in the next municipal election. This 5-4 rotation helps ensure continuity. There are no limits to the number of terms a member may serve. There is no financial compensation.


School districts may adopt one of three types of election plans: at large, by region, or by a combination of regional and at-large seats. At large candidates must be residents of the school district, but may live anywhere in the district and are chosen by all the voters in the

district. Regional candidates are elected by the voters of their respective regions, with each region electing an equal number. In combined plans, all regions elect an equal number of school directors who reside in each region and who are elected only by the voters of their region, and some directors are elected at large by voters districtwide. Vacancies are filled by an appointment process conducted by the remaining board directors. If less than two years remain before the former director’s term expires, a director appointed to fill that vacancy serves for the remainder of the term.


School board directors’ focus is to give children the best possible education at an affordable cost to the community. School boards have the duty to “establish, equip, furnish, and maintain” the schools in their district. School directors work with the school district's finances, approve policies including disciplinary policies, establish a strategic plan, set budgets and levy taxes for the district, establish curriculum requirements, set health and safety protocols, and hire or fire the superintendent and assistant superintendent. Despite the broad powers of school boards, the work is still highly regulated from the state and federal levels, involving numerous mandates, restrictions and technicalities with which school boards must comply. A school board's authority is exercised through the collective decisions of the entire board.



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