By Michael Pakenham

A governance grab is afoot in Pennsylvania. If approved by the state legislature, it would constitute the most volatile graft accelerant since the plain brown envelope.

It would balloon the payrolls of the state's 67 counties. It would obliterate more than 2,500 local governments. And it would generate massive new state and county agencies.

If you have never been terrified by gobbledygook, you haven't read the title of the state Senate's version of the proposal: "An Act amending Title 53 (Municipalities Generally) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, creating the Boundary Review Commission; providing for municipal dissolutions, incorporations, annexations, mergers and consolidations; and making an appropriation." The House's is even scarier.

The grab is contained in Senate Bill 1357 and House Bill 2431. Its intent is to decapitate and bury local governance.

Though the legislation has received little attention, it is a serious threat. One bill is sponsored by six senators, the other by 13 representatives. They argue for efficiency, concentration, simplification, and other platitudinous notions unsupported by fact. Their campaign goes back years in one form or another.

The bills' supporters contend that local government is inefficient, unprofessional, and costly. The facts refute that. In the 20 years since the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act was passed, not even 1 percent of Pennsylvania's municipalities have sought state protection. Meanwhile, big governments all over the state - and the biggest, the state itself - are in or teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

In essence - though in blindingly intricate detail - the legislation would do away with virtually every township, borough, and other form of municipal or local government in the commonwealth. It would replace them with a new structure of county mega-bureaucracies - most probably politicized, unionized, pensioned, overpaid, and underworked.

The county bureaucracies would take over land use, taxing, policing, firefighting, public facilities, road maintenance, sanitation, public health, and more. Add to that a series of unelected bureaus and bureaucrats to oversee the redistricting and realignment of the entire state.

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Bad men

More than 25 men and women connected to the General Assembly have been convicted or implicated in the so-called Bonusgate investigation. Two Luzerne County judges await trial or sentencing for sending youths to detention for personal profit, while more than two dozen other officials in the county are facing penalties for other crimes. Most have pillaged the public purse - and trust.

It is in that light that the governance grab must be examined. These measures would create vast new opportunities for political shakedowns, kickbacks, and bribery.

Local democracy is the main reason Pennsylvanians enjoy lower taxes per capita than most other large states - well below those of neighboring New York and New Jersey, for example.

Is local government in Pennsylvania perfect? No. True democracy is a celebration of the imperfectability of government. Its genius is its recognition that any form of authority is vulnerable to abuse and excess.

In 1887, Lord Acton famously wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. ..."

That's a bit tough on top guns in my experience, but not far off when it comes to Pennsylvania's state government, which I witnessed professionally for half of my adult life.

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Pennies pinched

My wife, Rosalie, and I, having retired from lifetimes of editing newspapers and magazines in many of America's biggest cities, including Philadelphia, have made our home for eight years on a farm dating to the 1790s in northern York County's Washington Township (area: 28 square miles; population: 2,700). We were drawn here by its lovely, wooded, rolling, clean, and peaceful countryside, which has been farmed by resident families since the early 18th century.

Not long after we moved to the area, we became involved in writing a new comprehensive plan for the township, replacing one that was more than 30 years old. We were amazed by the response of our neighbors.

Dozens of local residents put in thousands of volunteer hours. We surveyed residents' attitudes and values, developed the plan, saw it through review, and built a foundation for revised zoning ordinances and other legal protections. The plan was completed at almost no cost to the township. Nearby townships paid professional consultants from $30,000 to $60,000 for the same work and an inferior result.

We have gained immense respect and fondness for local farming and other rural traditions, as well as for residents' willingness to protect a way of life that goes back 10 or more generations in many cases.

The only elected officials of Washington Township are three supervisors. Every bit of work maintaining the township, its roads, and its regulations is done by them or a tiny group of hourly, part-time employees. They have been kept on a very tight budget.

Pennies are pinched. Meetings are well-attended. The township is watched closely and, from time to time, righteously whined about. It works. Democracy here is alive, well, financially prudent - and beautiful.

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Make-work

This is but one of 1,455 "Townships of the Second Class" in Pennsylvania, employing some 10,000 local, and locally responsive, officials and workers. There are many similarly small boroughs and other municipalities.

If the governance grab were passed and put into force, all of their authority - including that of the Washington Township Board of Supervisors - would be obliterated. The locally chosen and monitored workers would be fired or become serfs of massive, unaccountable state and county governments.

Pennsylvania contains 58,000 farms, which occupy close to eight million of its 28.6 million acres. Farming is the backbone of the state's economy. Billions of tourist dollars are drawn in annually by Pennsylvania's rich, vast, and varied cultural and physical heritage. It all works because of the genius of local governance.

We have had many experiences with state and county government. Most would be familiar to anyone who's been to a Pennsylvania motor-vehicle office - nearly paralyzed by absurd, duplicative administrative clutter and make-work. (It took us six and seven dreary hours to change our driver's licenses.) The county and state institutions we've come in contact with largely fit that mold, despite the hard labors of the occasional admirable official.

Both bills are scheduled for committee hearings this month - one on Aug. 17 and the other on Aug. 18. Citizens must speak out against the ever-grasping pols, who will do their best to pass them in stealth. Let them know they will be held accountable.

Michael Pakenham is a former associate editor of The Inquirer and a former editorial page editor of the New York Daily News. He can be reached at empakenham@aol.com.