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Term limits for Northampton County executive? An elected sheriff? County Council floats possible home rule charter changes

Northampton County Courthouse, Easton, Pa.
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
Northampton County Courthouse in Easton, Northampton County, Pa. in January, 2023.

EASTON, Pa. — Proposals to make Northampton County's sheriff an elected rather than appointed position and to set term limits for the county executive could come before voters in an upcoming election.

Northampton County Council’s Government Committee last week heard a suggestion to make the changes to the county’s home rule charter.

  • Members of the Northampton County Council Government Committee suggested changes to the county's home rule charter
  • Members also explored creating a commission to explore more impactful changes to the charter, like replacing it altogether
  • Any changes would have to be approved by a majority of voters in a referendum

Commissioners John Cusick and Lori Vargo Heffner revived previous proposals for the changes, as well as to clarify when appointees temporarily filling vacant seats are replaced through an election.
“I'm not married to any of these ideas, committee Chairwoman Vargo Heffner said in an interview Monday. "I'm not even dating any of them.”

Heffner said she wanted to give members an opportunity to more formally explore ideas that had accumulated in prior discussions.

Any of the changes would require amending the county’s home rule charter. The council can vote to place proposed changes to the charter on an upcoming ballot.

If a majority of voters would approve the measure, it would take effect.

'We keep identifying flaws'

Under Pennsylvania law, some changes — regarding “election of municipal officials,” for example, or how many members sit on the county council — count as an entirely separate form of government, though exactly which changes is subject to debate.

To pursue those proposals, the council, with support from a majority of voters, must create a commission to study the existing charter. If the commission ultimately recommends amendments or a new charter, it can trigger a second vote.

Heffner said that even if the council is not interested in pursuing any specific policy changes, it still may be worth pursuing a charter study.

"This is an opportunity for us to bring up and review again the home rule charter, because we keep identifying holes. We keep identifying flaws."
Northampton County Commissioner Lori Vargo Heffner

“This is an opportunity for us to bring up and review again the home rule charter, because we keep identifying holes," she said during the meeting. "We keep identifying flaws.”

County council most recently proposed a charter study in 2017. Then-county Executive John Brown, who now serves on council, vetoed the ordinance that would have brought the referendum to voters.

For proposed amendments to qualify for the November ballot, council must approve them by September.

Heffner asked members to bring possible charter amendments they want to pursue to the government committee’s next meeting in June, and has invited more input from her constituents.

“I don’t think we need to be afraid of the process,” she said. “It’s [the voters’] government. It's our government. It's mine, it's yours.”