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Borough Council Sets Plan for Appointing Interim Mayor

by on October 22, 2019 9:57 AM

State College Borough Council on Monday agreed to a timeline and process for selecting a replacement for Mayor Don Hahn, who is expected to step down in December.

Hahn is running unopposed for the magisterial district judge position currently held by the retiring Carmine Prestia. Assuming he is elected on Nov. 5, Hahn plans to resign as mayor on Dec. 16. The interim mayor will serve the remainder of his term ending January 2022.

Neither state law nor the borough's home rule charter prescribe a process for appointing an interim mayor, other than that council must do so within 45 days of the mayor's resignation and that the selected candidate be at least 18 years old and a State College resident.

Council President Evan Myers proposed a process last week that was unanimously approved on Monday night.

Interested applicants will have until Wednesday, Nov. 6, to submit a letter of interest. Myers said information about submitting letter should be posted on the borough website in the coming days. Council may then begin discussions at a public meeting on Nov. 8 and continue with discussions and interviews at work sessions and voting meetings throughout the month.

"All this has to be in an open process and it will all take place in our council meetings," Myers said.

The goal is to reach a consensus by Dec. 2 then hold a vote on Dec. 16. Council members-elect, as well as Penn State student representative Genevieve Miller, will be invited to participate in discussions, but only the seven current members of borough council will be able to vote. Four council seats are up for election this year, with incumbents Jesse Barlow and Janet Engeman on the ballot, along with Deanna Behring, Peter Marshall, Tom Dougherty, Lynn Herman and Katherine Watt.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said that when Mayor Bill Welch died in September 2009, council agreed that they would not appoint someone who planned to run for the position in the upcoming election. (Felicia Lewis was appointed as interim and Elizabeth Goreham was elected that November.) Council was split on Lafer's suggestion that they again use that standard.

"I know that sounds a little arbitrary. It’s not arbitrary for us to choose somebody to sit here and do this job, giving him or her, of whatever political stripe, a step up for the next election," Lafer said. "I do not want to appoint an incumbent who can take advantage of that and its name recognition. I do want to appoint somebody who is competent and who understands the needs of this particular job. I think we can do that with somebody who will be comfortable with the remaining portion of this particular term and then step down."

Councilwoman Janet Engeman agreed an appointment would give "an unfair advantage" to someone who planned to run in 2021. Councilmen Dan Murphy, Jesse Barlow and Myers each said, however, that while members could use that as part of their own determination on how to vote, it should not be codified into the process.

"I’m certainly comfortable with individuals on council making the determination of their individual vote about how they perceive this person’s future intentions as part of their motivation," Murphy said. "I think that would be short-sighted of us as terms of our process and procedure to eliminate anyone from consideration simply because they may have ambition to continue to serve into the future."

Barlow said he didn't think it was feasible to impose a requirement not to run.

"I don’t mind if someone wishes to use that as a reason to disqualify someone," Barlow said. "You can disqualify people for whatever reason you would like. I think you should pick whoever you think is the best person to serve in the job, and that, to me, is the only criteria I intend to use."

Myers said that each council member will need to articulate why they feel someone is more qualified, but that it would be "restrictive" to preemptively disqualify someone who might run for election.

"The fact is even though people may have all the best intentions not to run they might," Myers said. "There’s no legal rationale that we could prevent them from running again. Obviously they’d have to face the voters with a broken promise, but plenty of politicians have faced the voters with broken promises and gotten elected again."

Lafer added that the requirement "worked extremely well" in 2009. She also noted that State College has had some long-serving mayors — both Arnold Addison and Welch were elected to four terms and Goreham was elected to two — and an appointment as interim mayor could set someone up for a long-term role

"If you have somebody you would personally like to see as mayor, particularly for a long time period — and some of our mayors have been here for decades — I don’t think this is the time we should choose him or her and appoint them and give them an extra chance to have that 20 years or whatever," Lafer said. "If it’s that important, the two years will be a good period of time in which to gather people’s votes. I personally would be very uncomfortable giving anybody — including somebody I thought would be an extremely good mayor — that bully pulpit. I don’t think that’s good government at all."

Council did not make the requirement part of the approved process.

In response to questions from Barlow and Councilman David Brown, Borough Solicitor Terry Williams said council members have free rein to ask candidates whatever questions they think are appropriate. 

A simple majority of four yes votes will be required to approve the interim mayor.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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