State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Town-Gown Relations a Priority for Mayor-Elect Hahn

by on November 09, 2017 5:00 AM

Don Hahn grew up in State College, graduating from State High and then Penn State. After attending Villanova School of Law, he returned to practice as an attorney, and serve in local government.

After a relatively high-profile race over the past nine months, and an Election Day spent mostly at the Penn State student voting precincts in the HUB-Robeson Center, Hahn, 53, will now be mayor of the borough where he has spent most of his life.

Quite simply, Hahn said, he is "thrilled."

"I love State College," he said on Wednesday. "There are a lot of familiar faces but also a lot of changes. It’s very rewarding to be elected in the community where I grew up."

Hahn won 54 percent of the vote in Tuesday's mayoral election, finishing ahead of fellow Democrat Michael Black (who won nomination in the primary as the top write-in vote-getter on the Republican ballot) and Ron Madrid, who ran as an independent. 

With Mayor Elizabeth Goreham deciding not to seek a third term in office, much attention was paid to the race throughout the year, with multiple debates held leading up to the election and endorsements for each of the candidates coming from all corners.

"I always said that a strong democracy needs competitive elections, and I certainly had two very strong competitors," Hahn said.

An attorney with the State College law firm of Stover, McGlaughlin, Gerace, Weyandt & McCormick, Hahn has a long resume of experience with borough government, one that includes 12 years as a borough council member and service as vice president of the State College Redevelopment Authority. He also spent four years on the board of the Pennsylvania Municipal League.

Hahn believes it was that experience to which voters responded.

"I think I was the most experienced of the three, having served on borough council for 12 years and various other agencies," he said. "I also think having my experience I recognize what’s really great about this community – its spirit of volunteerism, its inclusiveness and beauty."

Under State College's home rule charter, the mayor is the presiding officer of borough council but doesn't vote on any matter. He or she approves or vetoes any ordinance passed by council -- but the veto is rarely exercised as council can simply override it. The mayor is the ceremonial head and official representative of the borough.

So in addition to officiating council meetings, the mayor is an advocate, a diplomat and the public face of State College government.

As he prepares to take office, Hahn has two priorities: improving town-gown relations "by increasing frank and respectful communications between students and borough leaders," and encouraging residents to participate more in local government.

For the former, Hahn believes most students and non-students want to get along and have mutually respectful relationships.

"Having gone door to door in the Highlands neighborhood and talking a lot to students, it seems there is in fact a lot of mutual respect among residents and students," he said. "Residents are very well aware they bought homes near student housing and the history of State College being the home of Penn State. At the same time a lot of students recognize the beauty of the town is a part of the reason they are coming here. That is an asset they wish to keep.

"I think the majority of students and non-students want to co-exist and are willing to reach out. There needs to be more opportunities to communicate and solve problems respectfully."

The situation reminds Hahn of his first term on borough council, when, he said, relations among the borough and Centre Region townships seemed poor. 

"The reality was a lot of the residents of the townships and the borough didn’t feel that much different [from each other], but sometimes you get leaders who feel they have to appeal to their interest groups," he said. "Unfortunately they can fall into those roles of being the township supervisor and the borough council member and trying to protect their little plot. When in fact most citizens prefer cooperation. That was back then, and it seems like a similar situation now [with town-gown relations]."

What's needed, he said, is for all parties to "stop and discuss our concerns and fears."

In his role presiding over borough council, he wants to encourage council members to be more directly responsive to citizens who bring concerns forward during public comment at meetings.

Council voted to restrict the amount of feedback given during public comment, something Hahn hopes he can convince members to change.

"It’s important not only that [citizen concerns] be addressed when they come but I think it’s also important for those who observe it to know it’s addressed and feel that they can come forward with their own issues and not appear to be ignored," he said. "I don’t think council is ignoring public comments, but when you don’t react to it, it doesn’t appear responsive."

Hahn believes the mayor's role with borough council also should be as someone who can help build a consensus among council members.

"When I was president of the Middle District Bankruptcy Bar Association, I was very conscious that one of the roles of a presiding officer was of consensus builder," he said. "An active presiding officer basically tries to summarize the discussion in a concrete, actionable form... Having something concrete to react to helps move forward the discussion in a productive way."

Hahn has expressed his admiration for out-going mayor Goreham, and Goreham endorsed Hahn in his campaign to succeed her. He said Goreham has provided examples he hopes to apply during his tenure.

"I think her strength is in the role as symbolic head of the borough government. In many ways she took that role to new directions, becoming more of an activist mayor, sometimes flirting with controversy more than her predecessors," he said. "Although I tend to shy away from controversy myself, I think the role of activism is something I wish to emulate, in terms of promoting sustainability, inclusiveness and entrepreneurship."

He also noted that Goreham took on a much more active role with the Pennsylvania Municipal League to advocate for local government reform and that she has been a champion of affordable housing.

Goreham's representation of the borough and frequent participation at meetings and events throughout the community is another aspect of her leadership Hahn said he will emulate. He also plans to carry on Goreham's tradition of holding regular office hours in the HUB-Robeson Center for Penn State students.

"I think in many ways her role over the past eight years has been inspirational for me for the next four years."



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at geoff.rushton@statecollege.com or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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