Cheltenham Pennsylvania is a home rule township with a local charter that was adopted by the community in 1976. To this day it has never been amended. Not for lack of the people trying, at least once.
In the hot summer of 2009, a citizens group formed in Cheltenham, named We the People of Cheltenham, for the purpose of placing a proposal for an amendment to their home rule charter on the ballot in November of that year. There were already several community organizations thoroughly engaged in opposing a plan announced by the South East Pennsylvania Transportation authority (SEPTA), a public benefit corporation with Board members appointed by the Governor and Legislature of Pennsylvania, the mayor and City Council Members of Philadelphia, and five surrounding County Boards of Commissioners, to shut down rail stations along the suburban train route and build a massive parking facility in Cheltenham that would draw automobile traffic to the community as a hub for area commuters.
A handful of dedicated residents circulated petitions, as required by state law, to amend their charter in a way that would put land use and development proposals of public benefit corporations in front of the people of the community, as a ballot question. If they prevailed and the community-at-large accepted their proposal with their votes, the decision about the giant parking facility, and ultimately the fuel-guzzling consolidation of public access to public transportation would be up to the people in the community most directly impacted.
They didn’t realize there was already a governing system in place that could nullify their democratic rights, their interests, and subordinate them and those of neighboring communities to the interests of power, money and state-chartered public benefic corporations as well as their own municipal corporation, whose bosses they ostensibly had the power to elect. They were soon to find out that, even if existing law could not defeat them outright, the levers of power can, and would, due to a systemic anti-democratic default process neither they nor their predecessors had a hand in creating.
Through their charter amendment they proposed to locally constitutionalize a right to local self-government, the proposition that corporations are subordinate to township residents’ rights, and that no corporation would be afforded the same rights as township residents. Finally, the proposed amendment called for the community’s right to decide certain quality of life Issues. Here is the language of that provision:
“The people of Cheltenham Township shall have the right to reject the ability of any State-chartered public benefit corporation to engage in land development. The public benefit corporation seeking to engage in land development shall be required to qualify a referendum in accordance with the provisions of this Charter. No State-chartered public benefit corporation shall engage in construction within Cheltenham Township prior to a majority vote approving such construction. Approval of the electorate shall not be construed as waiving any other requirements, regulations, permits or approvals.”
The petitioning process went amazingly well, given that We the People of Cheltenham got a late start and had but a few weeks in a blistering summer heat and suburban Philadelphia humidity to collect the signatures of Township voters amounting to 10% of the number who had voted in the prior gubernatorial election. But they more than succeeded. With a minimum legally required signature count of about 2300, they collected over 3000 signatures from neighbors who volunteered their support for the amendment.
But when the group submitted the petitions to the Montgomery County Board of Elections for certification, We the People were met with a buzz-saw of official opposition, though they followed all the rules, did everything right. That didn’t matter. Raw political power follows only one rule: defeat all opponents, without regard for justice.
The members of the Montgomery County Board of Elections are also the Montgomery County Commissioners. In 2009, they were also closely politically connected to the Board of Directors of SEPTA. When they received the petitions of We the People of Cheltenham to amend their home rule charter, the proposal to place SEPTA’s local development plans under the governing authority of the community was judged to be a bridge too far. The Board of Elections voted unanimously to block the amendment from appearing on the ballot.
We the People of Cheltenham, with pro bono assistance from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, sued the Board of Elections, asking the court to instruct the members to fulfill their legal obligation to certify the petitions and post the amendment to the ballot.
According to a local paper, the Board “acknowledged they don't know whether they have the legal authority to do what they did. ‘There really is no law on this,’ said county solicitor Barry M. Miller.”
But in fact there is clear law on this. The Board of Elections, according to statute and case law, has only ministerial power to determine the legal sufficiency of the petitions. It has absolutely no authority to judge the acceptability of the amendment itself. That, the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth has determined, is up to the voters to decide at the ballot. In addition, the court has ruled that a home rule charter has the status of state law and that to allow a legal intervention into the legislative process of amending such a charter would be the equivalent of allowing a legal intervention to stop consideration of a law in the state legislature. Any challenges must wait until the law is actually enacted.
According to the paper, “The commissioners admitted that the citizens group, which wants residents to have more say in the development of their community, did everything right. It filed on time and secured more than the necessary number of signatures to get a proposal before township voters to amend the township's home rule charter to include a citizens' Bill of Rights.”
The court agreed with We the People and the commissioners: the citizens group had done everything right, and the Board of Elections (commissioners) was directed to do its duty and place the proposed amendment question on the ballot for the people to decide if it would become part of Cheltenham’s home rule charter.
That wasn’t the end of official opposition to the people’s attempt at direct law-making. Home rule or no, the Township Commissioners scheduled a vote on their regular agenda to pursue a legal injunction against the Board of Elections to keep the question off the ballot. We the People answered this attempt to deny their right to amend the charter with an outpouring of community opposition that so clearly intimidated the municipal Commissioners that, after a 45 minute conclave in the basement of the meeting hall, from which angry shouts and heated words could be heard emanating up the stairs to where the people awaited their decision, they returned to announce there would be no injunction attempt.
And yet the efforts to maintain the status quo power arrangement in the Township did not end there. Though the question appeared on the ballot, the local Democratic Party mounted a pitched campaign to defeat the amendment, and succeeded by circulating rumors about what horrible lawsuits could be expected if the amendment succeeded, and about the “real” and unstated socialistic intentions of We the People.
There was no apparent recognition of the irony that the citizens had already prevailed in one horrible lawsuit, or that another had already been avoided.
September 23rd, 2010
by John Dunphy, We the People of Cheltenham
August 5th, 2010
by KEITH PHUCAS, Times-Herald
November 1st, 2009
by WTPoC, We the People of Cheltenham
October 26th, 2009
by Brad Segall, KYW News Radio
October 23rd, 2009
by Tom Mullian, We the People of Cheltenham
October 12th, 2009
by Margaret Gibbons, The Intelligencer
September 20th, 2009
by Margaret Gibbons, The Intelligencer
August 28th, 2009
by Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, CELDF
August 25th, 2009
by Kaitlyn Foti, Montgomery County News
August 12th, 2009
by Brooke Welsh, We the People of Cheltenham
August 3rd, 2009