Adoption of a new local government article to the Pennsylvania Constitution in 1968 guaranteeing the right of all Pennsylvania counties and municipalities to adopt home rule charters and exercise home rule powers was hailed as a watershed in the history of local government in Pennsylvania. Opponents warned of chancy experiments in untested legal areas. Twenty-seven years of experience has shown home rule to be neither a panacea nor a bane for local governments. Home rule has proven to be an effective tool for reorganizing local governments to increase effectiveness and citizen participation, and has enabled a modest local initiative in procedural and substantive matters. Home rule has not revolutionized local government operation, nor has it entangled municipalities in legal difficulties or imprudent activities.
The basic concept of home rule is relatively simple. The basic authority to act in municipal affairs is transferred from state law, as set forth by the General Assembly, to a local charter, adopted and amended by the voters.
This basic point has been explained by government study commissioners to their voters, “home rule means shifting of responsibility for local governments from the State Legislature to the local community...a borough choosing home rule can tailor its government organization and powers to suit its special needs.” Commissioners often liken a charter to a local constitution for the municipality, “it is a body of low, a framework within which the local council can adopt, adapt and administer legislation and regulations for the conduct of business and maintenance of order and progress.”
But home rule does not set a municipality adrift from the rest of the state. It is subject to restrictions found in the United States and Pennsylvania constitutions and in state laws applicable to home rule municipalities. Local autonomy under home rule is a limited independence, but the thrust has been changes. Local governments without home rule can only act where specifically authorized by state law; home rule municipalities can act anywhere except where they are specifically limited by state law.
Enactment of the Home Rule Law in 1972 culminated a long movement toward increased local autonomy. It was concurrent with increased emphasis on delegating both federal and state programs to county an municipal governments. But this legislative trend toward increased local autonomy has been coincident with a countervailing trend–an increased legislative tendency to meet problems with uniform state laws overriding local discretionary authority. Recent examples have been in ears of local officials’ ethics, condominium conversion and energy conservation standards for buildings. Thus home rule is not a static concept. Local powers under home rule charters will expand and contract in the future with the course of state legislative activity and judicial interpretation.
Implementation of home rule in Pennsylvania has been a slow, lengthy process, generally lagging behind other states. Final adoption of the Home Rule Law in 1972 came almost a century after Missouri become the first state to grant constitutional home rule in 1875.
William Penn’s Charter granted by Charles II in 1681 authorized the proprietor to create counties, towns, boroughs and cities. Early practice vested sovereign power over local government in the provincial, and later, state government. Abuse of legislative interference in local matters in the nineteenth century led to prohibition of special and local laws in the Constitution in 1874.
The progressive movement of the early twentieth century spread the concept of a constitutional guarantee of home rule for municipalities across the country. Home rule first came to Pennsylvania in 1922 when the Constitution was amended to allow the General Assembly to grant cities the right to adopt home rule charters. But the legislature did not take action until 1949, and then only authorized home rule for Philadelphia.
Philadelphia citizens were quick to take action - - a proposed home rule charter was adopted by the voters in May, 1951.
A second step by the General Assembly was the adoption of the Optional Third Class City Charter Law in 1957. The Law offered third class cities a selection of governmental forms provided in the law and granted a measure of home rule power. Between 1957 and 1972, seventeen cities adopted optional charters under the authority of this law. Thirteen still operate under their optional charters; Wilkes-Barre adopted a home rule charter in 1973, Johnstown in 1993 and Allentown 1996.
Home rule for all local governments became an issue again in the studies of various commissions leading up to the Constitutional Convention in 1967-68. Home rule was one of the central points of the new local government article proposed to the voters and adopted in 1968.
“Municipalities shall have the right and power to frame and adopt home rule charters... A municipality which has a home rule charter may exercise any power to perform any function not denied by this Constitution, by its home rule charter or by the General Assembly at any time.”
The legislature met the constitutional mandate to enact implementing legislation within four years by adoption of the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law on April 13, 1972. The Home Rule Law establishes the procedure for adoption of a home rule charter. The voters of local jurisdiction elect a government study commission charged with studying the existing form of government, exploring alternatives and deciding whether or not to recommend change. If the commission decides to recommend home rule, it drafts a charter that is presented to the voters for their decision. Adoption of a home rule charter comes only with the approval of a majority voting in a referendum.
The Home Rule Law also contains restrictions on the exercise of home rule powers. In certain subject areas, home rule municipalities are restricted to powers set forth in state law. In addition, home rule municipalities are subject to uniform state laws applicable in every part of the Commonwealth.
Since its inception, the Home Rule Law has been amended fourteen times. In most cases the amendments clarified procedures, but one significant amendment in 1974 placed home rule municipalities under the provisions of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code. In 1996, the entire text of the Act was reenacted as part of Title 53 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes. This involved renumbering all the sections and restructuring the headings.
The General Assembly chose to implement the constitutional mandates for home rule and for optional plans of government for municipalities in a single piece of legislation. Adoption of an optional plan is through the same government study commission process as for home rule, except the government study commission merely selects one of the optional plans provided in Sections 2971 through 3171 of the Law. These include a council-manager plan, an executive-council plan with three variations and a plan for small municipalities where the elected executive doubles as the president of council. Municipalities adopting optional plans gain no more home rule powers; they remain subject to the provisions of their municipal code, except where it is superseded by the structural provision of the optional plan.
The optional plans have not proven very popular with Pennsylvania municipalities. As of September 1999, only 22 government study commissions recommended optional plans to the voters, as opposed to 136 recommending home rule charters. Only twelve optional plans have been adopted, and one of those was repealed in 1981.
Horsham Township Municipal Building
1025 Horsham Road
Horsham, PA 19044
Phone: (215) 643-3131
Fax: (215) 643-0448
Hours: Mon-Fri, 8:30 AM-4:30 PM
Horsham Township Police Department
1025 Horsham Road
Horsham, PA 19044
Non-Emergency Response: (215) 643-3600
Business: (215) 643-8284
Fax: (215) 643-0390
Hours: 24 Hours