The Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law allows local governments, such as counties, townships, boroughs and cities, to tailor-make their own form of government. Think of a Home Rule Charter as a “constitution” for a local government. Indeed, the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees municipalities the “right and power to frame and adopt home rule charters.”
First, however, a decision must be made whether or not to study the current local government and to consider a change in the form of the government. This decision is made by the electors, who, will also elect a group of citizens to conduct the study and to report to the voters so that a final decision may be made. There are two methods to begin this study process. The question may be placed on the ballot either by an ordinance of the local government or by petition of the municipality’s voters.
The Government Study Commission undertakes serious and significant work in studying the municipality’s government and options under the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law for governmental improvement. If it concludes that a Charter should be adopted, the Commission then must write the Home Rule Charter. The Commission may select the date for the referendum to put that question to the municipal voters, that is, whether or not to adopt the Home Rule Charter drafted by the Commission.
While all of Pennsylvania’s Home Rule municipalities have a legislative body, such as a council or commission, wide variations exist as to the form, or existence at all, of an elected executive. Because governance under Home Rule can be a clean slate and new opportunity, the new form of government may choose a weak-mayor form of government, when the original form had a strong mayor, or, no mayor at all, as an example. Further, there is often an appointed professional municipal administrator or manager, to manage and operate the day to day affairs of the municipality.
Absent the adoption of a Home Rule Charter, or Optional Plan, the local government must follow the form of government mandated by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth, such as the applicable County, City, or Township Code that is “cookie-cutter” and applies to all municipalities of a particular class (such as, for example, cities of the Third Class must follow the Third Class City Code). Home Rule law, or an Optional Plan, is direct democracy in action, and is adopted by a referendum of the electors of the local government. The law recognizes a properly adopted Home Rule Charter or Optional Plan as having the same force and effect as a statute enacted by the Commonwealth. This, then, of course, means, that a Charter may be amended only as provided by the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law, and not by a mere local ordinance, resolution or code provision adopted by the local governing body or executive.
Although Charters and Optional Plans allow wide flexibility in the form of local government, the statute places limitations on local governments in certain areas, such as taxation, firearms, education, employment, municipal planning and elections. Further, generally, all other statewide legislation, Federal Law, the Pennsylvania Constitution and the U.S. Constitution may not be violated by a Home Rule Charter or Optional Plan.
A Home Rule Charter may be repealed by the same process, that is, the question of whether a Government Study Commission should be formed, the study, and then a recommendation of repeal or not, and if so, the new form of government which the municipality should take. There appears to be no legal or constitutional prohibition on the municipality returning to the pre-Charter form of government, such as, for example, the Third Class City Code, or applicable Township or County Code.