Before the American Revolution, one borough was established in each of the three original counties. Since then, the number of boroughs in the Commonwealth has increased to 966, making them the second most common form of municipal government in Pennsylvania.
Unlike all the other municipalities in Pennsylvania, boroughs are not classified. And when a borough’s population reaches 10,000, it may become a city by state law.
The present type of borough government is classified as the “weak mayor” system because the borough mayor has no power to hire employees or direct programs. He does, however, have the power to veto decisions of the borough council. And while the mayor is considered to be a weak executive, his responsibilities include executing and enforcing borough ordinances and regulations, representing the borough at community events and other functions, and taking charge of the police department if the borough has one. The mayor is elected for a four year term.
The true governing body of a borough is an elected council, which normally consists of seven council members who are elected by the residents for four year overlapping terms. Boroughs with populations of less than 3,000 may reduce the number of council members to three or five. And if a borough is divided into wards, one or two council members are elected from each ward. The council elects one of its members as president to preside at meetings.
In more than 250 boroughs, the chief administrative officer is a manager who is appointed by council. As in townships, the manager is responsible for carrying out the policies and enforcing the ordinances of the council, relieving the council of routine day to day administration.
Townships are the oldest form of organized government in the United States, dating back to the 17th century. When the pilgrims first came to America from England, they brought the concept of township with them, and by order of the Mayflower Compact, townships became the first political subdivisions in the new world.
William Penn began establishing townships in Pennsylvania as early as 1682, with about 10 families to each. But as the Industrial Revolution brought more and more development to the Commonwealth, the existence of many townships was jeopardized. As growth intensified around cities and boroughs, developed portions of adjacent townships were annexed into them.
In 1899, the legislature attempted to remedy this problem by providing for two categories of township – first and second class. At that time, all townships with a population density greater than 300 people per square mile were designated as first class townships. This separate classification enabled townships to preserve their character and fiscal integrity, and it gave first class townships greater power when dealing with the impact of growth. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that townships of the second class were granted greater powers in this regard.
The 1899 legislation was later amended to allow for a transition from second to first class township status, and these transition requirements remain the same today. To become a first class township, townships of the second class must have a population density of 300 people per square mile and voters must approve the change of classification in a referendum. However, many townships have chosen to remain second class townships even though they meet the population density requirements to become first class townships.
The 1,457 townships of the second class are the most common form of government in the Commonwealth, representing more Pennsylvanians than any other form of government.
In first class townships, the governing body is made up of elected commissioners. Each township has either five commissioners elected at large or one commissioner per ward if the township is divided into wards. The commissioners have four-year overlapping terms and may not be employees of the township.
Many townships have a professional manager who is hired by the governing body. The manager is responsible for carrying out the policies and enforcing the ordinances of the governing body, relieving them of the day to day administration.
The earliest Pennsylvania cities were Philadelphia, Chester, Lancaster, Easton and York. And as various industries cropped up across the Commonwealth, more new cities were created.
The cities of Altoona and Reading grew with the railroad industry, while the cities of Johnstown, Bethlehem, Clairton and Coatesville grew with the steel industry.
In 1895, when the number of residents in certain cities was growing rapidly, the state classified cities into four classes according to population. The following classifications, which still exist today, allow the General Assembly to pass laws for cities according to their population:
First Class City — 1 million or more
- Second Class City — 500,000 – 999,999
- Second Class A City — 100,000 – 499,999
- Third Class City – cities under 500,000 population that have not elected to become a city of the second class A.
Philadelphia, the oldest and largest city in Pennsylvania, is the only first class city, and all laws pertaining to first class cities are for Philadelphia alone. Likewise, Pittsburgh is Pennsylvania’s only second class city and Scranton is the only second class A city. In all three cities the elected mayor is the dominant force in government and has broad administrative, appointive and removal powers.
The 53 cities remaining are third class cities, a large number of which operate under a commission form of government. Under this system, the residents elect a mayor to serve as commission chairman and four other council members, with each heading one commission department. The mayor is the commissioner for public affairs and the council members head the commissions of public safety, accounts and finance, streets and public improvements and parks and public property.
Because he heads only one part of the government, the city mayor is considered a “weak” executive. He represents the city at ceremonial affairs but is considered equal to the city council members in all other respects. He votes on council actions but has no right of veto.
From 1957 to 1972, third class cities could adopt two other forms of government by referendum under the Optional Third Class City Charter Law. These two options are the mayor-council plan and the council-manager plan, and several cities continue to operate under these alternative systems.