Reporter's Guide to Pennsylvania Local Government

what you really need to know when they send you to a meeting


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As the only city of the first class (over 1 million) in Pennsylvania, state law pertaining to first class cities applies only to Philadelphia. Philadelphia has operated under a strong-mayor home rule charter since 1952.

Philadelphia is also a county.


The mayor, who is elected, has control over the administration of the city. He or she has broad administrative power and can veto appropriation ordinances in whole or in part. He or she appoints:

  • a managing director, who supervises 10 major departments including police, fire, streets, water, recreation, public health, public welfare, public property, licenses and inspections and records.
  • a director of finance.
  • a city representative.
  • a city solicitor.
  • director of commerce.
  • civil service commission.
  • members of other boards and commissions, including the planning commission, human relations commission, trustees of the Free Library and the pension and retirement board.

The city council has 17 members, one elected from each of the 10 council districts of the city and seven elected at-large

The city controller, independent of the mayor and council, is responsible for auditing all city expenditures.


The state took over Philadelphia schools in 2002 due to poor financial and academic performance and replaced the school board with a five-member School Reform Commission with three members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. Management of some city schools was turned over to universities and private companies.


Philadelphia has been troubled with major financial problems due to erosion of its tax base, caused in part by a substantial drop in population, an exodus of business and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

The General Assembly enacted special legislation in 1991 authorizing a one percent sales tax for Philadelphia and creating the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority with the power to borrow money and issue bonds.


Philadelphia employs more than 29,000 people. All but a few come under the regulations of the city civil service or merit system. The agencies carrying out the personnel functions are the civil service commission and the personnel department, headed by a personnel director.

The mayor appoints the three-member civil service commission from among names submitted to him by a civil service panel which consists of representatives of city organizations.

The civil service commission is a policymaking, supervisory and quasi-judicial agency. The personnel director and his department handle the specific daily tasks, including recruitment, selection and placement of employees.

Major exemptions from civil service coverage include the mayor, council and judicial officers, top management officials such as the managing director, and also heads of departments, boards and commissions and their deputies.

Uniform working conditions and fringe benefits apply to most of the city employees.

There are three pension systems in the City of Philadelphia – one for the police force, one for the firefighters and one for the general employees.

Other governmental units in Philadelphia such as the Philadelphia School District, the Delaware River Port Authority, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Housing Authority also have pension plans.


Under the Sterling Act, passed in 1939, Philadelphia became the first city in the U.S. to enact a municipal wage tax.

The mayor is elected to a four-year term and is limited to two successive terms which run concurrently with city council terms.

The controller must appoint a CPA as deputy for auditing, and auditors are to be CPAs or college graduates majoring in accounting.

To elect the 17 members of city council, each political party may nominate one candidate for each of the 10 district positions, but only five for the seven at-large places. This allows the minority party to elect at least two members.


Written by pareporter

April 24, 2010 at 12:36 am

One Response

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  1. “A First Class Township – The Story of Pocono Township” is now available wherever books are sold (, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) I wrote this book after working with a grassroots group of twenty residents of Pocono Township to change our community from a second class to a first class governance in 2013. Unhappy with our leadership, we convinced 63% of our residents to vote for change. It can be done! When the people allow their voices to be heard, remarkable changes can occur. Find out who we had to fight, what we had to do and how we managed this monumental feat. The book is a blueprint and an inspiration for change. A must-read if you and your community are looking for a brighter future. Visit — Jack Swersie

    Jack Swersie

    March 31, 2014 at 4:14 pm

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