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Friday, August 19, 2011

Too many little governments

Regular readers will know that I occasionally write on the need for voters to choose their local elected officials carefully. Although mostly retired now, and concentrating on writing my next book, I do remain involved in planning at the state level. Recent events there cause me to write this:
Townships and boroughs are regulated by a complex set of regulations that have become a mish mash. Most candidates for local office, and all too often those already elected, have not read these laws and codes and/or don’t understand them. Therefore, local municipalities are often run by solicitors, engineers, codes officers and office staff. These folks may be honest and good, or they may be something else. In any case, what is universally true is that they don’t have the same commitment to the municipality as someone actually living there.
Local officials have only the powers specifically granted them by the state legislature through those laws. In my opinion, there are two strong currents flowing through the corridors of state government in Harrisburg:
1.      A belief among many legislators, staffs and bureaucrats that local elected officials are often incompetent or worse.
2.      A concerted attempt by associations representing the development/business community to wrest power away from local governments and rest it on their own shoulders.
(For the record, I agree with the first point and sympathize with the second.)
What we have now verges on chaos, and in some places at some times, descends deeply into the abyss. Ask any developer, builder, architect or surveyor. We have thousands of subdivision land development and zoning ordinances out there using different procedures and terminology, and representing a cacophony of widely divergent philosophies. It’s a recipe for hanky panky.
We all bring our prejudices to this disorderly table. A local official will tell you that the business community is made up of often unscrupulous people taking advantage of Pennsylvanians for their own gain (and apparently with a loss for citizens). A developer will tell you that the usual local official is at best an ignoramus, and sometimes downright corrupt. Again, both would be right depending on where and when the combat took place.
And make no mistake: It can be, and often is, a war full of battles over green fields, setbacks and sewer EDUs. Pennsylvania has far too many elected seats to fill and nowhere near enough competent people to sit in them. We need to consolidate into medium sized units of government.
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