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County vs. PD

The battle for open government gets personal this time

The Plain Dealer's raging murder boner for Cuyahoga County Council President C. Ellen Connally got a Viagra boost last week when the paper discovered that — gasp — Connally had e-mailed her fellow councilmembers in an informal poll to determine whether they supported moving the twice-monthly meeting times from 6 p.m. to 3 p.m. Transparency in county government is an easy sell on the front page these days, and there's no better ammunition than cries of secret meetings. A PD editorial and a cartoon followed.

But the meat of the story was buried beneath the manufactured outrage and quotes from good-government advocates, those folks who think government employees who do anything less than broadcast their bowel movements on webcam are hiding behind closed doors like a cabal of witches deciding which child to toss into the cauldron first.

The point — the real point — was that council favors moving meetings to the afternoon, that weird part of the day where the majority of folks are at work. Connally, to her discredit, has negative knowledge in public relations. Time and time again, questions from the media are answered with dense, standoffish quips like "Leadership isn't the public's business," as if she took her PR lessons straight from LeBron's camp.

This time, in defending the midday-meeting option, she said that the public doesn't even come to the evening meetings, so the afternoon won't change a thing. Way to get the public on your side. To her credit, at least she didn't add: "I bet even the lazy schmucks who can't find a job and have all day every day free won't attend either. They're probably drunk by noon anyway."

Between Connally's quotes and The PD's coverage, the picture was painted, and Connally's only outlet — which she made use of, naturally — was a statement on the Cuyahoga County website. Turns out she's not a fan of the PD reporter, Laura Johnston; in her screed, Connally returns the left jab of "secret meetings" with a straight right of "lazy, dumb reporter."

"In order to get the issue on the floor of Council for a public debate, I introduced legislation with a starting time of 3:00 P.M., anticipating that there would be an open and public debate on the question," Connally wrote. "Whether the time changed or remained the same would be up to the vote of the members of Council in an open meeting.

"Based on this attempt to initiate an open debate, this newspaper has concocted an orchestration on my part to change a meeting time through allegations of secret meetings and violations of the Ohio Sunshine Law. Nothing could be further from the truth. Prior to the release of the story, the County Law Director e-mailed his opinion to Reporter Laura Johnston stating that there was no violation of the Sunshine Law. This e-mail was either ignored or discounted while Reporter Johnston sought out the advice of those who agreed with her position.

"The real irony of the allegations of secret debates that made headlines, a cartoon, and an editorial," she goes on, "is that there were major pieces of legislation passed that evening ... Reporter Johnston found these issues too insignificant to cover."

With a report, a cartoon, and an editorial already in the books, only The PD's sports section has yet to weigh in on the bout. This round, by our count, is too close to call.

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