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Borough Basics: Understanding Local Government

Getting To Know Your Municipality

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As a resident of a borough for over 10 years, I’ve attended council meetings, been to dozens of events in borough buildings, and voted for mayors and council members. 

If I’m honest, I’ve never really grasped how it all works.

Over the next several weeks I’m taking a deep dive into our North Boroughs and what you and I can do to make a difference and get involved. Oh, and don’t worry, I won’t forget about you, Ross and Kilbuck, I’ll include information about Townships as well. 

Let me be completely honest with you: local government isn’t sexy.

It isn’t even mildly exciting. That’s probably why most residents stay completely in the dark about how things work. Sure, every now and then residents assemble and angrily stomp down to a council meeting and have their few minutes to talk and get something changed that has become a thorn in the side of the community. However, most borough meetings come and go with rare glimpses of “real” conversation happening during the meetings, hidden by declarations being read, summarizing discussions with resolutions already made in the weeks before.

I may not know exactly how my local government works, but I will tell you this:

Change is not made from a sternly worded Facebook post or a Nextdoor take-down. 

Change is made in the council’s smaller committee and budget meetings. Change is made when you make your voice heard. In the current age of voter skepticism, local government is a place where your one vote really, truly, counts and can make a difference. To make real change we have to have a seat at the table, and to do that we have to have a basic understanding of how this all works. It takes a little effort and time, but I hope you’ll join me on this journey as I learn about our North Boroughs and Townships. Feel free to ask questions, make corrections, and share stories along the way. I want to feel more empowered in my community, and I hope you do too.

First, let’s get the vocabulary out of the way. Boroughs and Townships are types of Municipalities. Municipalities are simply a single division of an area that have the ability to self govern as allowed by national or regional laws. So, no matter if we are talking about city, town, village, township, or borough, these are all examples of municipalities that have the ability to govern themselves, but are also subordinate to national and regional laws. 

A borough is a type of municipality unique to seven of the United States: Alaska, Connecticut, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Boroughs may be defined slightly different from state to state, for example, in Alaska a borough is just another word for county, but in Pennsylvania boroughs are more comparable with towns. Pennsylvania has 958 boroughs and they are all similar in that they are municipalities that have councils that create and uphold borough code. Boroughs have mayors, who serve to oversee law enforcement and break ties when they occur in the council. 

A township differs from a borough, often with a larger population. Also, instead of a council, townships have supervisors, also called commissioners, who make up a board that is responsible for making ordinances and managing finances.

Both boroughs and townships can have managers, who are appointed (not elected) to carry out the resolutions of the council or board and takes care of all administrative duties. They may work closely with directors, assistants, and fire and police representatives.

One last important definition to know is Ward. Wards are the bane of my existence because I can never remember which one I’m in and I don’t understand why my neighbors and I aren’t in the same one. Wards are wonky in that way. A ward is a division of a municipality that elects and is represented by an official (a council member or commissioner, in the NoBos).

It’s important to know what ward you are in because it decides who represents you on council and where you vote.

Also, if you would ever want to run for a position, your ward would decide who you would run against and what position you could hold. This might be the most important part of this whole series…. Drum roll please….


Avalon Borough

Bellevue Borough

Ross Township

Now, I’m going to get more specific about the North Boroughs of Pittsburgh, but if you are like me and just Can. Not. Go. On. without more information about municipalities in PA please visit the Keystone Crossroads article that expertly explains all of this in more detail!   

North boroughs of Pittsburgh include Bellevue, Avalon, Emsworth, Ben Avon, and Ben Avon Heights. Townships north of Pittsburgh include Ross and Kilbuck. First, let’s go through what the government looks like in each area. I’ve included each municipality’s website and whether or not their council’s meeting minutes are up to date. 

Where do you live? Find your local government info below.

Avalon Borough 
Website - Minutes available and up to date
Government: Nine council members and a Mayor. 

Website - Minutes available but not up to date
Government: Nine council members and a Mayor. 

Ben Avon Heights
Website - Minutes available and up to date
Government: Seven Council members and a Mayor. 

Ben Avon 
Website - Minutes available and up to date
Government: Seven Council members and a Mayor. 

Website - Minutes available and up to date
Government - Seven Council members and a Mayor. 

Kilbuck Township
Website - Minutes available but not up to date
Government: Three Supervisors 

Ross Township
Website - Minutes available and up to date
Government: Nine Commissioners 

In the upcoming weeks I’ll be bringing you all things borough government. How do you run for a council position? What does being a councilperson entail and why would anyone want to do it? If you don’t want to be on council, how else can you get involved? If there’s anything specific you’re curious about just send me an email and I’ll include it in an upcoming Borough Basics installment. Until then, let me know what you want to know about how your borough works! 

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Beth Mosley

Beth has lived in the North Boroughs since 2010. Over the past 10 years, she has met fantastic people in each of the North Boroughs, and has grown from a girl who loved Affogato pancakes and events at The Creative Treehouse to a married, working mother of two who loves to let her kids run wild at the Bellevue Farmers Market. In her spare time she can be found working on laboratory quality assurance, jogging on California Avenue, listening to podcasts, and pleading with her sons to stop hitting each other. She lives in Avalon with her husband, two boys, and two cats.

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  1. Hello Beth, You said “A township is historically less populated than a borough,” when actually the reverse is true. A municipality is so identified as a Borough, a Township, a Town or a City based on the residential population. McCandless Township was re-identified as the Town of McCandless once it had surpassed the population threshold for a Township. The North Boros is comprised of 5 Boroughs, Avalon, Bellevue, Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights and Emsworth. The municipalities of Avalon, Bellevue and Ben Avon (ABBA) are united in the Joint Comprehensive Plan and the Joint Zoning Ordinance providing opportunities to identify the use of land and obtaining grant funds to assist with infrastructure on a unified front. Thought you might be interested in having this information.

    1. Hi Michele! Thanks so much for this information, I really appreciate it. I am going to edit the post so I don’t cause any confusion.

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