Your vote is incredibly important in local elections.
Understanding how local elections work and how council people and other local officials get elected is not easy, however. Good news, though, this information is available to everyone, you just need to know where to look and who to ask. I found one particularly knowledgeable borough resource, Brian O’Malley, who serves as the Assistant Manager and Treasurer for Avalon Borough. Brian was previously Chief-of-Staff for State Representative Adam Ravenstahl and was elected to the Board of Supervisors in Richland Township from 2006-2009.
As someone who has run for office and works directly with Council daily, I asked Brian what qualities a person needs to be an effective elected official.
Caring about their community and wanting to learn what they can do to make it better.
He finds that those who get elected and have an open mind to a broad range of improvement opportunities in the area do much better than those who come into their council seat with one pet project or individual area that they really want to work on.
Your Experiences and Background
A variety of backgrounds and occupations on Council is important. For example, on Avalon council there are lawyers, engineers, and business owners. Everyone has something to offer in this area, and your unique life experience will undoubtedly benefit the group.
Willingness to learn.
Most people don’t know what actually goes on day-to-day at the borough, and that’s OK. Ignorance is not an excuse not to get involved!
Once a council person wins an election, they have an opportunity to attend a local government training course. In Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs offers a “Newly Elected Municipal Officials Boot Camp”. There are trainings of varying lengths that are available to council people and interested citizens. Even just digging around on the links I’ve provided below is a great starting point to someone who wants to learn more about municipality government.
OK. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Councilmen and women serve terms of four years, with no limit on how many terms can be served. Every 2 years, always ODD years, municipal elections are held to fill any seats up for re-election.
This means that every odd year there is almost certainly an opportunity to run for a council seat in your Ward.
About your Ward… you DID find out which one you’re in, right? If not, go back to my previous post and use the links to find out.
How do I get on the ballot?
If a person wants to run for a council seat, they have a few ways to go about getting on the ballot in November.
Get on the ballot for the primaries in May.
Municipal election primaries are always held the third Tuesday in May. As I said before, these are in ODD years.
In presidential years, primary elections are held on the fourth Tuesday in April, however, so this year will be different. To get on the ballot for the primaries, a person needs to get at least 10 signatures from residents of their Ward who are also in their party. That’s right, you need to get out there and talk to the public. Find out what party they are in and explain what position you would like to run for. You need to have your full name, the term of your desired position, and the full name of your desired position clearly written on the form with the signatures. Once you get your 10 signatures (Mr. O’Malley suggests always getting more, so if there’s a problem with a few of them you have extra!), you can turn these into the borough and BOOM, your name will be on the ballot in May. There are dates when all this needs to happen, and you can find these on the Allegheny County Election Calendar or by calling your local municipality. The dates to circulate and obtain signatures run from the end of January to mid February, so it is set up perfectly to achieve your New Year’s resolution to run for office!
Who needs to be on the ballot anyway??
That’s right, if you miss your window for getting signatures, don’t fret, you don’t need to be on the ballot in May in order to get on the ballot in November. Especially effective if there isn’t anyone else running in your Ward and party, you can launch a write-in campaign. Get some cards made with your name (so people spell it right) and you and your friends stand outside voting locations in your Ward handing them out. Tell people who you are and that you’d appreciate them writing your name in on the ballot. If no one else is running, there’s a good chance you’ll win this way!
I can’t run, I’m an Independent!
A-HA! But you can run, Mr. and Ms. Independent. There is a date, before the general election in November (I think in August, but definitely check during the year you’re running) when you can get your 10 signatures and get on the ballot in November. I think this is especially important to know, as I know my Independent friends often feel left out of the process.
If you would like to learn more about this process – and there is SO MUCH more to learn – explore the links I’ve provided below. I’ll be back with the next installment of Borough Basics soon, and please provide feedback or corrections – I am learning along with all of you! There are some very knowledgeable citizens in our boroughs and I’ve found that ultimately they are the best resources for this type of information. They know the in’s and out’s and do’s and don’ts that aren’t necessarily outlined on official websites. My most valuable resource for this post was Brian O’Malley, who was nice enough to sit down with me and make sure I have this information straight.
This article is part of the ongoing Borough Basics series. See the first article here.