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All in a Day's Work for Rural Townships

Posted: July 16, 2012

"Township secretary: is that a part-time job?"

That's a question that township secretaries and administrators get pretty often (and no doubt get tired of hearing).Citizens assume that because our municipalities are small, so too is the job of running them. But providing good stewardship of tax dollars, keeping up with state and federal regulations, and responding to citizen concerns is a full-time job and then some.

Recently I had the opportunity to join 15 township secretaries and administrators for a networking meeting. This was a first-time effort, and no one was sure where the discussion would lead. We suspected that citizen concerns would top the list, but we were wrong. What was clearly on their minds was how to juggle countless responsibilities: taking official meeting minutes, keeping the township books, paying the bills, creating monthly financial reports, making payroll, issuing building permits, handling subdivision requests, responding to code violations . . . and yes, responding to citizen concerns on a daily basis. Not every township secretary handles all of these responsibilities, but the smaller the township, the more likely that it's a one-man or one-woman shop.

Add to this list the many state laws and regulations that need to be followed such as bidding requirements and reports to PennDOT, DCED, DEP, DCNR and other state agencies. Let's take just one example: depending on the issue, township meetings must be advertised pursuant to the requirement of the Second Class Township Code, the Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), or specific requirements of a state-funded program or grant. And the requirements can be confusing: the MPC defines "Public notice," as "a notice published once each week for two successive weeks . . . The first publication shall not be more than 30 days and the second publication shall not be less than seven days from the date of the hearing". Got that?

Increasingly, township staff is also implementing state laws designed to make government more accessible to you, the citizen. The Sunshine Act, also known as Open Meetings, ensures that you have access to municipal decision-making. The Right to Know Act, also known as Open Records, ensures that you have access to municipal records. So what's the problem? No problem, really, just more paperwork: each township must adopt and implement policies to comply with the acts, and to document how they are doing it.

Speaking of records, another major task is maintaining the official records of the township in an accessible fashion, so when you request a copy of the building permit you obtained in 2009 someone can find it for you. Those municipal records are the township's history, and need to outlast the current secretary's filing system. And by the way, there's a law for that, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Most of the work I've described here goes on behind the scenes. Another critical role for township staff is to be the ‘face' of the municipality. Often the staffer is the first person you meet in your municipal government, and he or she sets the tone for your relationship with the municipality and its elected officials. This brings us back to citizen concerns. Yes, responding to citizens is a major responsibility for township staff. But next time you're in the township office take a moment to thank your staff for everything they do.

Contact Information

Judy Chambers
  • Educator, Economic and Community Development
Phone: 717-334-6271 x313