The Mystery of the Missing Mayor
With elections on the horizon, we thought we'd take a quick look at some of Norristown's more colorful political history.
There is no mayor in Norristown.
It isn’t just that the job is vacant; rather, voters in 2004 approved a Home Rule Charter Study Commission’s recommendations to change the structure of the government by eliminating the mayoral position.
To make sense of this, it helps to know something else about Norristown – it is not actually a borough. Take a look at Norristown's website and you will see it gives the town’s name as “Municipality of Norristown.”
“Norristown has a home rule charter, so we’re not technically a borough,” confirmed Dave Forrest, municipal administrator since 2007.
“The state government,” he explained, “actually organizes and empowers local government.” Pennsylvania has established codes that set up how boroughs and different classes of townships are to function. Boroughs, under their respective code, are supposed to have a mayor and council.
But, Forrest added, there are special arrangements that allow communities to opt out of those codes and adopt a home rule charter to set up their own government structure. Norristown is one such example, as is Media in Delaware County.
"We have a charter and administrative code, but the most significant change really is the fact there isn’t a mayor. Other than that, day to day, we function very much like a borough,” Forrest said.
The powers of a mayor under the state’s borough code are “rather limited,” said Forrest. The state law makes mayors responsible for overseeing the police department and breaking tie council votes.
However, Forrest said his understanding is that, even before it made the switch from borough to municipality, Norristown had a strong mayor with executive powers beyond those of casting tie-breaking votes and overseeing the police.
Norristown has been a home rule charter municipality since 1986, according to Al Cianciulli. A long-time resident, he was a member of the commission whose recommendations included getting rid of the position of mayor.
While Norristown had a “strong mayor” system of government, Cianciulli said, the mayor “theoretically only had a few powers,” including casting tie-breaking votes and serving as a dignitary representing Norristown. While adding that the police chief “answered” to the mayor, Cianciulli also said he did not know what specific powers the mayor had with respect to the police department.
Tony Darden, a member of the municipal council from 2000-04, and its president in 2004, recalled that the mayor “was primarily responsible for all administrative duties, so anything that had to do with hiring and firing of the municipal management team.”
Darden added that the mayor also had veto power over council actions, comparable to that of the president or governor, although on a “smaller scale.” Cianciulli said he was not sure whether the mayor actually had veto powers, but expressed doubt that was the case.
In any event, according to Rochelle Griffin Culbreath, who served on council from 2000-06 and was president in 2005, the mayor was able to exert power over “being able to get things even to the table, because, I mean, there [were] a lot of relationships throughout city hall.”
“The council had no power. It was all under the mayor. Council could make recommendations and then it was decided by the mayor what would pass and what wouldn’t pass,” recalled Mary DiGregorio, a self-described community activist who served on the commission that recommended eliminating the mayor’s job.
Griffin Culbreath said consideration of the idea to change the home rule charter and eliminate the mayor’s job grew out of roadblocks to revitalization efforts in Norristown.
“We started to find out that we kept walking into walls, and we weren’t able to really push a lot of our initiatives through because it would get vetoed. A lot of the very new things that we wanted to put in place, the mayor was really stopping it. It wasn’t just him; it was a lot of people in his cabinet,” she added.
“You have all these community groups that were all working towards the goal of bettering Norristown’s future. We were all coming up against roadblocks with the present government,” said DiGregorio. “The town council wanted to make revisions, to make improvements to Norristown. However, the mayor kept squashing it.”
She added that there were also issues with the “hiding of information and finances.” According to her, council members also recognized “some shady dealings going on, but yet they could not prove it, because of the fact that they had no control.”
It was council’s decision to create the commission that eventually came up with the recommendations for changing the home rule charter, said Bill DeAngelis, the mayor of Norristown from 1990-94. A member of the group that worked on the original home rule charter in the 1980s, DeAngelis also chaired the commission recommending the charter revisions that eliminated the mayor’s job. A history he has compiled about the elimination of the mayoral position can be seen at www.GoNorristown.com; additionally, DeAngelis is working on a book about his experiences as mayor.
Voters elected the members of the Home Rule Charter Study Commission in May 2003. People’s memories differ over some of the details about the commission – while DeGregorio said there were seven members, DeAngelis remembered there to have been nine.
Darden described the commission as being “primarily made up of disgruntled residents and/or former politicians that wanted to see change.” DiGregorio said it also included a couple of investment property owners, as well as a past mayor and council members.
At that point, she added, the commission had “nine months to revamp the home rule charter, present it to the public and have it appear on the ballot.”
DiGregorio said the Home Rule charter Study Commission met weekly at Norristown Municipal Hall and also held forums at different locations around Norristown. The commission’s meetings were open to the public and Cianciulli said the members asked for input from those in the audience.
“Now, there wasn’t a lot of people that came, but there were people,” he recalled.
According to DeAngelis, the commission’s first task was to look at the existing charter to determine what did, and did not, work. They were also to study the state constitution and the law governing the process for revising the charter. Additionally, the commission reviewed charters for communities comparable in size to Norristown, as well as those of surrounding townships.
“Most municipalities today do not have mayors anymore. If you look immediately around us, there is none,” said DeAngelis, reeling off the names of East and West Norriton, Lower Providence, Plymouth, Springfield and Whitemarsh townships as examples.
“What they have instead is the chief administrative officer who is called a municipal administrator,” selected by council on the basis of experience in municipal management, he added.
Norristown’s mayor at the time the Home Rule Study Commission was elected was Ted LeBlanc, a Republican. According to Darden, the municipal council, which had been dominated by Republicans, went to the Democrats in 2004.
But both Cianciullo and DeAngelis denied that there was anything partisan underlying the push to eliminate the mayor’s job. For his part, Cianciullo recalled the Home Rule Charter Study Commission as being nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
The real issue, according to DeAngelis, was that the pool of people in Norristown qualified to handle the mayoral office because of their understanding of history, management, business and budgeting “simply was getting smaller and smaller.”
Cianciullo said the commission’s thinking was that, rather than have “one mayor call the shots for the town,” the seven members of the municipal council should take charge.
“We just felt that it was better for seven people to make decisions for the town, rather than one,” he added.
“‘Home rule charter’ means that the seven people that are on council are supposed to bring their voices from their respective districts into one place, and then all the power rests upon those seven people,” said Griffin Culbreath.
Cianciulli said it took the commission about three months to agree on eliminating the mayor’s job.
That, according to DiAngelis, was the commission’s most significant recommendation for revising the home rule charter. Other than that, he added, “there were some little subtle things, but really nothing very, nothing very important. Obviously, if you get rid of the mayor, you change lots of things down the line.”
Among the other revisions made, Cianciulli said, residency requirements for borough employment were loosened, and compensation for council members was adjusted.
In Darden’s view, the Home Rule Charter Study Commission’s recommendations were incomplete.
“I personally thought they should have [done] a more in-depth analysis of the council,” he said, adding that he thought council term limits under the charter should have been eliminated."
“Let the people to decide when a person should not be in office anymore,” said Darden.
Nonetheless, the Home Rule Charter Study Commission’s recommendations, including the elimination of the mayor’s job, were approved in a voter referendum on April 27, 2004.
Two days later, federal authorities conducted a raid on the town hall and seized records. The resulting investigation led to a 2006 criminal trial in which LeBlanc was convicted of bribery, bank fraud and tax evasion after a six-day federal trial and sentenced to 51 months in prison. Griffin Culbreath has written a play, called ‘Hidden Rivers,’ about the controversy surrounding LeBlanc, and it has been staged several times, including at Montgomery County Community College.
According to DeAngelis, LeBlanc remained in office as mayor until his term expired, on Dec. 31, 2005. By law, DeAngelis explained, “if there’s a charter change, you can’t remove the people that are in office.”
“In the charter, it says the mayor must hold his position until his time was up,” Cianciulli said.
Meanwhile, once the charter changes went into effect, on July 1, 2004, the mayoral position had become purely ceremonial. For the remainder of his term, Darden said, LeBlanc was “kind of a lame duck.”
“He was still collecting his mayor’s pay, but he had no say in anything,” recalled DiGregorio.
With the end of LeBlanc’s term of office, Norristown no longer had a mayor.
However, DeAngelis said, council had the option under the revised charter of appointing a mayor to carry out assigned duties.
Since about the time that the charter was changed, said resident Hank Cisco, he has been serving as Norristown’s ambassador, a position appointed by council.
“I have nothing in writing, what my duties are, but orally, they told me I would represent the borough any time some of the councilmen couldn’t attend a function,” Cisco said. With some clearer guidelines what about his responsibilities are as ambassador, Cisco suggested, he could do more to help the community.
Forrest commented that Cisco was in fact serving to “represent the municipality on special occasions, functions and things like that.” Of course, not being an elected official, it would not be appropriate for Cisco to exercise the full powers of a mayor as provided under the borough code, Forrest added.
When asked for his opinion about whether Norristown should go back to having a mayor, Cisco said, “I would say, whatever he’d be, whether a mayor, he’d have to be somebody with a vision, somebody with his heart at Norristown, somebody that really wants Norristown to move ahead.”
The intention of eliminating the mayor’s job, said Griffin Culbreath, “was to create a more accountable and transparent environment so that we could get the people’s trust, the public’s trust again, and move on forward to our revitalization and our restructuring of the government.”
What the town’s residents “really are looking for now are leaders. I think they’re looking for true leaders that are problem-solvers and communicators,” she added. “You need somebody that’s just going to head down, run with getting people to emotionally buy in and build this community back.”
As far as Darden was concerned, while no longer having a mayor could have worked out well, the practice of rotating the position of the council president on a regular basis has been an issue. While the idea was to keep the council presidency from being viewed as “a seat that’s being abused,” Darden said, “I think it has worn its usefulness out.”
He added, “The direction of the municipality seemed to turn with every council.”
DeAngelis said he thought eliminating the mayor’s job “was the right decision. No question about that. Norristown doesn’t have a pool of people who could serve as the mayor.”
For DeGregorio, no longer having a mayor was, in some ways, “a good idea, because it opened up the books to the municipality and our finances.” Nonetheless, she added that recent events, such as the incident involving code violations at the 770 Sandy St. condominiums, showed that problems with the town government did not go away just because the charter had been changed.
“This is just constant history repeating itself, and it’s not open government. There is no such thing as open and honest government, whether you’re Democrat [or a] Republican,” she added.