Before becoming a first class township, Lower Merion was governed by a Board of Supervisors chiefly concerned with the care of roads. A single elected constable was responsible for law and order. About 1877 citizens formed societies to suppress lawlessness. Each society employed several policemen. In 1888 the societies merged as the Main Line Citizens Association. This body maintained the police force.
Townships having a census count of more than three hundred residents to the square mile were authorized to become first class townships by an act of the state legislature in 1899. Lower Merion was the first to avail itself of this status.
In the following November election seven men, each representing a ward, were elected as the first township commissioners. They held the first organization meeting at the General Wayne Hotel in March 1900. Six months later the number of wards, and consequently commissioners, increased to nine. As the township grew, the number increased to fourteen in 1972, still the same in 1981. Ward four (South Ardmore) has been represented since 1974 by Nolan E. Atkinson, Jr., the first black man to serve in this capacity. All the commissioners had been men until 1971, when Hester McCullough was appointed to fill out a term. She moved from Wynnewood to Bryn Mawr, ran for office, and won. In 1980 four women were on the board.
The Board of Commissioners sets policy and governs by passage of resolutions, motions, and ordinances within the guidelines and powers of the First Class Township Code. With two other men this code was revised in large measure by the late John Forsythe, Esq., a resident of Lower Merion who served for many years as president of the Pennsylvania Association of Attorneys for First Class Townships. He had a long and distinguished career, starting as assistant township solicitor from 1930 to 1943, when he was appointed township solicitor, and served in that capacity until he retired in 1972.
The president of the Board of Commissioners appoints all of the commission committees and, with the vice-president, serves ex-officio on them. On the walls of the large meeting room in the present township building, erected in 1925, are the portraits of those who have been the board presidents: Silas Jones, 1900-2; Algernon B. Roberts, 1902-9; George Sullivan, 1909-17; Joseph D. Kerbaugh, 1917-24; W. A. L. Barker, 1924- 26; Frank H. Sykes, 1926-32; Frank H. Mancill, 1932-36; Julius Zieget, 1936-42; John H. Jeffries, Jr., 1942 (left to join navy); Dr. Frank Barker, 1942-46; Richard W. Thorington, 1946-51; T. Ewing Montgomery, 1952-55; Samuel Ewing, 1956-59; Herbert J. Painter, 1960-65; Hal L. Bemis, 1966-71; Alan Kane, 1972-75; Donald Segal, l976-79; William Sweidel, 1980-. All were Republicans.
For many years before 1900 the majority of the voters were Jeffersonian Democrats. Since then Lower Merion has developed into a Republican stronghold in local elections. Among the fourteen commissioners, the Democrats have had no more than three members at a time.
Lower Merion has had a township manager since 1942. He is the chief executive officer working at the direction of the commissioners and overseeing the operation of the departments. The manager is an officer of the township, as are the township secretary, solicitor, and engineer--all appointed by the commissioners. The treasurer, two constables, and two district justices, who are also officers of the township, are each elected for four-year terms.
The Board of Commissioners holds an organization meeting following each municipal election (in odd-numbered years) to elect a president and vice-president and to appoint officers for the coming two years. The board is governed by bylaws revised in late 1977. Regular board meetings are held monthly at the township building in Ardmore.
The township provides a full range of services. Public Works consists of street lighting, highway and street maintenance, sewers, snow removal, refuse collection, and disposal.
The township supports libraries, recreation, parks, playgrounds, storm water control, planning, dog control, and public information. Public safety includes police and fire protection, health, building, and zoning regulations.
The Planning Department has prepared comprehensive plans in 1937, 1952, 1960, and 1979. The office of Public Information and Communications published "Annual Reports," called "Message" in 1981, on the township's operations and programs.
The fire-fighting system includes seven volunteer companies, six in the township-- Penn Wynne, Union Fire Association in Cynwyd, Belmont Hills, Merion Fire Company of Ardmore, Gladwyne, Bryn Mawr--and one in the borough of Narberth. Financial support comes from each company's fund-raising campaigns and from annual appropriations from municipal budgets. The township Fire Department's staff (a superintendent and three professional assistants) coordinates and regulates activities. The companies can protect 98 percent of the township in less than four minutes' response time. Neighboring fire companies assist each other.
Most of the revenue to provide township services comes from taxes, departmental earnings, licenses, and permits. The real estate tax is the largest source of revenue. The tax is levied on the assessed value of each property. In the 1970s the number of apartment units being converted to condominiums greatly increased the revenue from the real estate transfer tax. The township also levies a mercantile tax, a business privilege tax, and an occupational privilege tax.