For the first time since taking office in January, State College Mayor Don Hahn on Monday night said he plans to veto an ordinance passed by borough council.
Moments earlier, council approved by a narrow 4-3 vote amending the parking ordinance to formally establish an overnight parking permit system pilot project in the Highlands, a proposal approved by council in April, and to codify longstanding enforcement practices throughout the rest of the borough.
By the end of the meeting, council agreed to schedule a special meeting for 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 27 to consider an override vote. Five votes are required to override a veto.
Council members David Brown, Cathy Dauler, Janet Engeman and Theresa Lafer had voted in favor of the ordinance, with Jesse Barlow, Dan Murphy and Evan Myers voting against.
Hahn's decision to veto touched off a lengthy, and at times acrimonious, debate about the mayor's role in policy and procedure, all stemming from a letter Hahn sent to council on Aug. 1 in which he asked "as a citizen" for council to consider changes to the pilot program and "as mayor" expressed concerns about procedural issues.
Brown said he was "troubled" by the precedent Hahn's veto set, saying that wading into substantive discussion of policy blurred boundaries between council members and the mayor. Dauler said she was "disturbed" to receive the letter from Hahn as both a citizen and mayor and that his suggestions to send the ordinance for further review months after council voted on the proposal were "completely out of order." Lafer called Hahn's veto decision "petty."
"We didn’t listen to you, we didn’t discuss your letter and so you’re getting even," Lafer said. "I think that is the first time in your mayorship you have not only made a misstep but a really big one because you slapped an entire neighborhood in the face publicly within seconds of them getting a positive vote. I think it’s wrong."
Hahn said though the borough's home rule charter places no limits on why he can veto legislation, he was doing so because he believed, as he noted in the letter, that the pilot proposal should first be reviewed by transportation commission and that a public hearing should be held on the ordinance. Hahn's letter stated that on the issue of changes to the pilot proposal, he would respect council's decision whether or not they were considered.
"In this particular case my problems with it substantively would not have led me to veto it," Hahn said. "It’s the procedure that’s the issue."
He said, in response to a question from Dauler, that if the ordinance went through transportation commission and a public hearing and council again voted in favor of it, he would not veto it.
Myers and Barlow both said Hahn was within his rights to veto.
"The fact is the mayor has the right to veto a bill by the home-rule charter," Myers said. "If we don’t like that provision of the home-rule charter then we ought to change it. But to accuse any of us, whether it be the mayor or any fellow council member of some of the things that people accused the mayor of, I find to be untoward, quite frankly."
The ordinance approved by council was in response to a Highlands Civic Association request to enforce the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. parking restriction on neighborhood streets during Penn State home football weekends, citing negative effects of increased traffic and street parking. For decades, State College has waived enforcement of overnight parking restrictions on borough streets during Penn State home football weekends and other special events that bring an influx of visitors and vehicles to the area, as well as holidays.
After the borough studied parking on streets with 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. restrictions, council considered several options, including borough-wide enforcement at all times, which was recommended by transportation commission, as well as continuing with the practice of not enforcing during football and special event weekends. The borough's study in the fall of 2017 found more than half of the vehicles parked on those roads with restrictions did so only during times when parking was otherwise permitted.
During the review, staff found nothing in borough ordinances as written gave the authority to waive the parking restriction.
Council ultimately agreed to a pilot project only for the Highlands neighborhood, creating a system that will require residents to get a temporary permit for their guests to park on streets that otherwise restrict parking between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Each residence will be allotted 24 non-event overnight parking passes for a $24 fee, and 36 more at a cost of $5 each. On home football weekends and during Arts Festival, however, they will be required to pay $10 for an overnight permit.
Each address would be allotted the passes, so each home and apartment in the neighborhood would be eligible for the full amount. Fraternity houses would only count as a single address.
Parking director Rick Ward explained the borough worked with Park Mobile to develop an online system for registering the parking permits. Residents would receive an access code, then could enter specific dates and times and the license plate numbers for their guests, and the pass would automatically register with borough parking enforcement.
The ordinance also codifies the practice of not enforcing the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. restriction during football weekends, Arts Fest and eight other special occasions in the rest of the borough. On other nights residents can request exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
Myers and Murphy both voted against the proposal in April. Barlow, who voted for it in April, said that since then he reconsidered and believed it needed more consideration.
Myers said on Monday that the ordinance as written was "chaotic and confusing," while Barlow said the permitting system was "a bit incomplete" and that he felt it needed to be sent to transportation commission for consideration.
Both Barlow and Murphy also said they had concerns about whether the pilot project is equitable for renters and fraternities.
In his letter earlier this month, Hahn suggested that council consider expanding the overnight parking permit system to other neighborhoods and to consider creating an overnight event parking area, akin to the existing commuter parking areas. He also said he would support, for non-event overnight parking, "imposing a small, administrative fee upon those whose request for special exceptions to enforcement are made during the evenings or weekends" and "liberalizing the number and circumstances in which timely special exceptions to enforcement are granted."
Myers said the proposal isn't even a "band aid" for the parking crisis State College is about to face.
"We have to spend the time and effort to figure this out because we’re about to have a big problem," Myers said.
But for those who voted in favor, the measure would provide some needed relief for Highlands residents.
"This would help the Highlands immensely," Brown said. "I like what staff has done to try to formulate some operational attempt to make it work. It’s a difficult and complex problem, that’s true. But they’ve come up with a remedy worth doing."
Brown said the problem for the Highlands is visitors for football games who are "too cheap" to pay what the university charges for parking and leave their cars on neighborhood streets
"It’s primarily responding to the football scourge that dumps and warehouses these cars on every weekend of every game."
Added Dauler, "To abandon the neighborhood now at the 11th hour when we made it clear we understand how difficult it is for them… I think we would be remiss in what we are supposed to be doing here."
Highlands Civic Association President Mark Huncik and Vice President Susan Venegoni said earlier on Monday that the ordinance wasn't what the neighborhood asked for, and that they simply wanted to try enforcing the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. restriction during home football weekends.
"[The] neighborhood is simply looking for relief from unwanted effects of event weekends," Huncik said.
In a letter to borough council and staff, Huncik and Venegoni wrote that the data collected by the borough in the fall of 2017 showed that the Highlands has become "a free event parking lot, and not just for guests and visitors of its residents," and that the university has adequate parking to accommodate visitors who come for university events.
Huncik and Venegoni said that while they recognized an ordinance would be necessary to enact the pilot project, the borough should wait until the pilot was complete until codifying other changes.
Venegoni said in an email that the other changes to the ordinance codify non-enforcement of the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. restriction for 20 percent of the year and that more time and study is needed before making that change official. She noted that the borough is rapidly changing, with new buildings coming online and in the works and a major zoning rewrite under way, as well as a planned new parking deck on the Penn State campus and a potential public-private parking structure by the borough and Days Inn.
The ordinance was scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1, with the month of September being used to issue warnings on football weekends in the Highlands. If the override does not get five votes next week, council seems likely to send the ordinance to transportation commission for review. The commission's next meeting is Sept. 11, and the next regular council meeting is Sept. 17.