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  • “Your Petitioners Are in Need”: Pleasant Hills as a Case Study in Borough Incorporation
  • Richard L. Lindberg (bio)

In 1947 residents in the northern wards of Jefferson Township in Allegheny County voted, subject to court approval, to secede from the township in a bid to create a more responsive government. The resulting court approval allowed the Borough of Pleasant Hills to incorporate. Pleasant Hills became another element of local government in a county already fragmented by local governments. Incorporating a new borough raises several questions. Why was it necessary to form another borough in a county with a number of boroughs already? What would the citizens of the new borough gain? Where do boroughs fit in the structures of local government in Pennsylvania? This article will endeavor to answer these questions.

The scholarship on boroughs in Pennsylvania is limited. There are studies on the historical and political aspects of Pennsylvania’s boroughs, but little describing the process and reasons leading to their formation.1 Boroughs have a long history in Pennsylvania, beginning with the incorporation of Germantown in 1691 and continuing until the present day. [End Page 33]

In the late twentieth century, criticisms of the complexity of local government, including boroughs, appeared.2 In the 2002 Census of Governments, Pennsylvania had 2,630 local governments consisting of 66 counties, 1,018 cities and boroughs, and 1,546 townships. This does not include school districts.3 In 2010 eleven members of the Pennsylvania House introduced a bill to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to make the county “the basic unit of local government.”4 The House referred this bill to the Committee on Local Government but no further action occurred.

Boroughs are a reality in Pennsylvania. The process leading to the incorporation of the Borough of Pleasant Hills provides a window into some of the challenges to borough incorporation as well as the reasons residents petition to form boroughs. At the heart of borough incorporation is a variety of local interests.

Local Government in Pennsylvania

The first plan of government for Pennsylvania allowed residents to participate in their own government by transplanting English local institutions to the colony. On March 4, 1681, William Penn received a charter from King Charles II of England that gave to Penn “his heirs and assignees, free and absolute power to Divide the said Country, and Islands, into Townes, Hundreds and Counties, and to erect and incorporate Townes into Borroughs, and Borroughs into Citties.”5 These units of government (aside from the hundred) took root and spread in Pennsylvania.

William Penn established three counties in Pennsylvania: Bucks, Philadelphia, and Chester. He established in each a county court, which had authority to raise revenue through taxation to provide for public works, the poor, and prisoners.6 He also created townships in these counties for the purpose of controlling settlement. Each township was to have about 5,000 acres distributed among ten families. These townships followed English practice where justices of the peace held court and carried out daily administrative tasks. Townships became the basic county subdivision with powers to levy taxes for poor relief and maintenance of roads.7 Over time, townships received additional powers from the General Assembly and eventually were divided into first- and second-class townships based on population density. The 1933 first-class township code granted forty-five powers ranging from the power to regulate conduct, maintain a police force, provide for fire [End Page 34] protection and sanitary facilities, and maintain water troughs and rest areas on township roads.8

As early as the seventeenth century, towns developed within townships. As the towns grew in population and size, the need for order and government at this level became apparent to the residents. This led them to petition either Penn, the General Assembly, or the County Court of Quarter Sessions (depending on when the borough was incorporated) to erect a borough.

Along with counties and townships, boroughs are clear evidence of the English roots of Pennsylvania local government. Pennsylvania boroughs originally had the same government and functions of British boroughs. Most of the current cities in Pennsylvania began as boroughs. To understand the nature of boroughs in Pennsylvania, it will be helpful to...


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