Cleaning up the county doesn’t happen overnight. But Ed FitzGerald’s first year offers hope.

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Cleaning up the county doesn’t happen overnight. But Ed FitzGerald’s first year offers hope.

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"AS BAD AS IT GETS"

It's all in the tapes. If you push past the endless tough-guy chest-thumping, what's most striking about the FBI wiretaps that sealed the deal on corruption charges against Dimora and Russo is that these guys weren't masterminding grand schemes or scores. More often, the county's most recognized villains were dealing at the nickel-ante table: trying to get this guy here a county job, that guy there more take-home.

Although the major figures tied to the scandal were gone by the time FitzGerald showed up, that buddy system was still in play in some corners of the government. Instead of a monolithic slab of corruption, the county was a balkanized scatter of departments in various stages of disrepair: Some shops were effective and professionally run; others were disasters. Unsurprisingly, Frank Russo's former domain was ground zero. As FitzGerald would later reflect: "The auditor's office was as bad as it gets. There was not a type of dysfunction that you could come up with that they didn't have there."

After a decade under Russo, the office was waterlogged with political hires and strung together with favors handed out for work on campaigns, for knowing the right friends, or for simple payoffs. A scan of the office's roster coughed up names that were common currency in the county political realm. And the pay sheets were overloaded with disproportionate salaries, including office assistants making as much as $20,000 more than their own supervisors.

Piling on to the mound of dysfunction was the news that employees throughout the county had been misinformed about their work status for years. Under Ohio law, public workers fall into one of three categories: classified employees, who are subject to hiring and firing according to state law; union employees, who are chained to the terms of their contracts; and at-will workers, who can be fired for any non-discriminatory reason.

In the auditor's office under Russo, the entire staff had been told they were at-will employees, when in fact they were all classified. The mistake wasn't likely a paperwork slip-up. Russo and company had the leeway to hire and pay at-will workers as they liked. The scrambled status proved frustrating to the new regime's efforts to unknot a generation of cronyism.

FIXING THE PROCESS

FitzGerald often talks about the breakdown of democracy. If it's not exactly a bumper sticker he's affixed to his career, the phrase usually creeps into random conversation without much forethought — and it often seems to clunk against the forehead of whomever FitzGerald's talking to with minimal impact.

But he says it. Chatting with high school administrators about the controversy over Senate Bill 5, he notes that the system isn't working when every piece of legislation ends up in a voter referendum. When FitzGerald tells a story from his FBI days about the mafia's influence on Chicago politics, he couches it in terms of the voters being deprived of the electoral process. He sees voting-rights restrictions as a failure of basic government. He's never forced or preachy, just highly attuned to government that fails to deliver like it's supposed to.

"I try to be process-oriented about whether something works as it's intended to work," he says one afternoon in his office, after the tendency is brought to his attention. "I do think democracy is kind of fragile. If the building blocks aren't there or things get twisted, it's not just that the outcome isn't good: The process doesn't have integrity to it."

After bouncing it around for a while, he circles back: "I'm probably more focused on it than I used to be, because the last two political jobs I've had — as a mayor and this job — have been trying to fix a process."

A process with integrity was exactly what Cuyahoga County was missing when FitzGerald walked in, and the problems weren't limited to those orbiting the FBI probe. Everything from how departments evaluated employees (many didn't at all) to how real estate was valued (often incorrectly, if at all) to how ethics codes were applied to government contracts (what ethics codes?) were all problem spots.

With the initial integrity audit completed, FitzGerald rolled the responsibility for reviewing the government to his newly appointed inspector general, a former U.S. Attorney. An ethics policy was introduced, accompanied by training.

The county's basic hardware also went through a dramatic rewiring. The new charter took what formerly had been the offices of 13 county administrators and poured the pieces into four branches. The County Stat program was introduced to track performance, a setup that specifically leans on the data-based results and accountability FitzGerald associates with proper process.

The reorganization also meant likely duplication of services within the ranks. In order to shuffle through the deck, the county under FitzGerald contracted with a South Carolina consulting firm to launch an 18-week study that, through evaluations and interviews, sought to learn exactly who did what and for how much.

All of it was groundwork for layoffs. Although streamlining had always been part of the plan, the pressure for cuts ballooned beyond the usual good-government penny saving when FitzGerald got word early in the year that the state would slash the county's funding more than originally expected — three times more. But rather than simply cut a uniform percentage of the workforce, he decided to march through each branch and eliminate overlapping positions.

"We had to take a system that was really inwardly focused and have a culture change where we look at national best practices and try to figure out the best possible way to do things for the least amount of money," he explains, his voice dipping into the clinical phrasing of a surgeon discussing a bypass.

But trimming labor has proved to be a more nuanced procedure than FitzGerald had originally bargained for. Common sense — or righteous indignation grown fat on a steady diet of headlines about county corruption — says that if positions are going to go, why not put the people who secured their jobs for the wrong reasons at the top of the list? FitzGerald figured early on that he'd be able to walk through the county offices, tossing pink slips to employees known to have rubbed against the wrong shoulders. But legally speaking, that was a no-go. Often, when new administrations fire holdovers, those ex-staffers sue and win their jobs back over procedural technicalities.

"Just because an employee was hired because they worked on someone's campaign or they were related to the right person, it doesn't mean the employee doesn't have rights," he says, his voice chaffing from the frustration of knowing his hands are legally bound. "You can't go to a labor arbitrator and say, 'Oh, this guy just knows somebody, that's why we fired him.' That's not good enough."

Still, he knows there's poison to be extracted.

"Anybody that obtained their jobs through an illegal act, I want to fire," he says. "We know there are people that paid for their jobs, and we don't know who they are. The federal government hasn't told us."

STAVING OFF CONTROVERSY

In early November, FitzGerald took to a podium at the county administration building and solemnly explained that 33 jobs had been carved from the fiscal office, the latest round in a steady stream of layoffs. Since January 1, the county has lost a net total of 365 employees, among them workers who have been laid off or fired for cause, as well as those who retired or quit. In all, the reductions save the county more than $21 million in annual pay.

TV newscasts played up the notion that FitzGerald was taking an ax to the county government, and a triumphant note entered some of the coverage when it turned out three of the layoffs were politically linked.

FitzGerald acknowledges that there's a bit of a misperception about the layoffs — that they are about cleaning house more than tightening belts.

"Most of the people who have lost their jobs this year didn't do anything wrong," he says. "For some of them, it's been absolutely devastating."

Through it all, FitzGerald's decisions have been met with steady nods of approval from the spectator seats. Among fellow politicians, he has earned widespread approval — most notably for gritting his teeth and making tough decisions they believe better the course of the county.

"I think he came in there with a lot bigger challenges than any of us even really thought," says Euclid Mayor Bill Cervenik, who chairs the Northeast Ohio First Suburbs Consortium. "He's systematically tackled most of them and has strategic plans to finish."

Many among the county's new 11-member council say they have a good working relationship with the executive. No major issues have chipped away their courtesy or pitted the branches against one another — though that could have more to do with their lingering grace period, as both administration and council come to grips with their respective roles.

"I think Ed is doing a very good job under the circumstances, trying to right a ship that clearly was going in the wrong direction in terms of serving the residents of the county," says Councilman David Greenspan. "At the same time, I think council has expanded our role."

Council President C. Ellen Connally would like to see more "give and take" with FitzGerald moving into the next year. "I think that's fair," she says.

Just last week, the council and executive arrived at a budget compromise that headed off looming conflict. FitzGerald agreed to allow $4.4 million in additions; council held back on a request to hire 12 new county workers.

In year one on the job, FitzGerald has largely stepped clear of mistakes that translate into damning headlines — though there have been exceptions.

In October, The Plain Dealer reported the county's failure to publicly post a job opening that went to a former colleague of fiscal officer Wade Steen. FitzGerald explained it as a simple mistake, but for a new administration riding in on a mandate of transparency, it was an embarrassing instance of the message not matching the move.

Earlier in the year, FitzGerald went head-to-head with County Prosecutor and Democratic Party heavyweight Bill Mason over whether the new county law director should handle the county's legal business or if the work should remain in the prosecutor's office. The Ohio Attorney General ruled in favor of Mason, rendering FitzGerald's law director little more than an advisor.

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