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"It sucked the soul out of you when you walked in every morning."
So says one former county employee, describing the last year living through the regime change, the review process, and the steady stream of layoffs.
Inside the halls of county government, FitzGerald's cutbacks haven't played well. Another former employee labels the county "Terror City" under the new administration, with constant rumors telephoning from cubicle to cubicle about who's next out the door and who has slipped through the cracks.
County staffers recently departed and remaining say there are still a lot of pigs wearing lipstick these days — particularly in the realm once lorded over by Russo. "Every management person in the auditor's office was connected to Frank, and they got their jobs somehow, and they're all still there," says one person no longer with the county. "And they're all making fantastic money."
For employees, it's a mash-up of anger and anxiety: anger because they're tired of watching good folks escorted out the door while mid-range workers who got their jobs the wrong way straighten their dress-code-mandated ties and march off to ethics training; anxiety because they don't know what's coming down the line next.
Fueling their ire: Those who were tight with the old guard are still drawing the largest salaries — sometimes ten to twenty grand more than the colleague one cubicle over.
"The taxpayers hate us, businesses don't know who they're talking to, the leftover administrators don't trust us — they think we're going to rat them out. And FitzGerald's administration — they think we're all crooks because we're left over from the old regime."
But the person who best sympathizes with honest employees is probably Ed FitzGerald.
"There is a longer process that people are going to have to be patient with," he says. "Some of these people will be weeded out with time." He adds that since he took office, a number of former political hires have quit, realizing they would otherwise have to start showing up for work like everyone else.
"If someone is being compensated at a level that their position does not justify, that's a big problem. And I think a lot of that is going to be corrected by the end of the year."
LEVELING THE FIELD
Morning is closing in on lunch hour, and FitzGerald is front and center before an audience for the second time today. Following a visit to Lutheran West High School, he now faces a crowd that's packed into a low-ceilinged, fluorescence-soaked room on the first floor of the county medical examiner's building, a midrise cube south of University Circle. About 100 employees fill the seats, attentively drinking down FitzGerald's comments about the ongoing budget process and appraisal of the county branches. He speaks clearly from memory, probably because it's a riff he's given often; each month, FitzGerald meets with groups of county employees to keep them up to date. After 20 minutes, he opens the floor to questions. And then silence.
"I'm not leaving until we get at least one question," he deadpans. After a few in the crowd speak up, a woman near the front raises her hand. Point-blank, she brings up the past administration's habit of stocking the coroner's office with unqualified pals who brought home larger paychecks than others. It was unfair, she says, and it still hasn't been corrected.
"It's not fair," FitzGerald repeats before launching into a complex answer that touches on the points of law that have hampered the administration's effort to match pay with experience and jettison political hires from the ranks.
His reply whittles more than five minutes off the clock, and it's characteristic of the executive. When most politicians address tough questions with long answers, it's circuitousness in the service of evasion — a defense aimed at losing the original thread in a wonky thicket. But when FitzGerald embarks on a long-winded reply — and he often does — he seems earnest about getting his point across. He's more comfortable working on a large canvas, loading up with details, and footnoting his explanation with historical and local examples.
"There's people that are very politically connected that have been terminated, that are getting their salaries lowered, and everything else," he says, tying off his answer. "I'm letting all the chips fall where they may. I'll take care of politics some other day, when it's time for me to run for reelection."
If the layoffs are a high-profile piece of cost-trimming, the pay alterations due before the new year are the most dramatic step FitzGerald has taken to rip up the infrastructure of influence linked to the past.
As part of the evaluation of county employees, new classifications were created for each position. Specific pay ranges are tied to those classifications, and by the end of the year, the administration plans to corral county workers within the new rubric. That means a lot of inflated salaries will drop — a first for county government — and some underpaid positions will see a bump. Although the process will likely save the county only around $1 million, the message carries symbolic weight.
"The political infrastructure that supported those people and gave them a special status isn't just diminished — it's gone entirely," FitzGerald says. "These people, they have to sink or swim totally on their own."
THE NEXT STEP
As Cuyahoga County's first executive, Ed FitzGerald is not simply laying groundwork for his own political career. The future strength of the new office as a regional player is locked into whether the county can shrug off its reputation and present itself as a professional shop. That means minting the success of year one into tangible political capital for year two — basically proving to the region that the county finally has its game together.
And county-wide efforts have been a tough spot in FitzGerald's first year. He's been surprised by cities that pay lip service to the concept of regionalism but are wary of letting the county play quarterback.
"I thought they'd be more reasonable about it," he says flatly. "We are not on a path to regionalism. The people that are against it should be encouraged, because the conversations are not particularly serious in terms of doing anything sweeping."
Most mayors hugging the core give FitzGerald high marks. They say he's receptive to their concerns, and they seem warm to joint efforts.
"He's working effectively and reducing costs and dealing with the new government structure," says Shaker Heights Mayor Earl Leiken. "I think he's really tried to develop collaborative efforts, particularly working toward economic development that will benefit everyone. He's tried to be open and is effective at reaching out to people and giving them a sense of involvement."
Others in suburbia are less sanguine.
"I think they're responsive to listening to us. I can't say at this point they're responsive to our needs. There aren't any tangible results yet," says Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough, who was critical of FitzGerald's anti-poaching proposal last summer. After a revision, 15 communities signed on. It was an exercise in pulling teeth, but with a typically clear-eyed look at his own position, FitzGerald gets it.
"If we didn't address these [county issues] and we then started to try to lead other communities, I think they rightly would have said, 'Why don't you get your own house in order before you start giving us advice on how we should partner with you and other cities,'" he explains.
"We have a whole next stage after the clean-up, and that's really picking a few key issues and being the driving force behind making things happen, whether it's regionalism or economic development or human-services reform."
FitzGerald believes the county could offer services — he throws out IT support as an example — to its communities. He has already expanded the use of county sheriff's deputies to bolster regions that are thin in law enforcement.
The charter gives the county a significant carrot in the form of a $100 million economic-development fund. That might be the key to getting everyone around the campfire. FitzGerald plans to announce a proposal in February that will represent a "dramatic step forward" for regional collaboration.
"It's always going to have to be the choice of the city," he is careful to add. "You can't force it on the cities."
ONE JOB TO WORRY ABOUT
Before speaking to employees at the coroner's office, FitzGerald had been treated to a tour of the facility by Dr. Thomas Gilson, the Connecticut medical examiner FitzGerald hired. An elevator taking them to the meeting was packed full of high-schoolers also touring the office that day.
"Do you know who this is?" Gilson playfully ribbed the students, nodding toward FitzGerald. "Do you know?"
As the kids nervously bug-eyed the wall, FitzGerald shook his head, his grin spreading to a bashful expanse.
"Noooooo," he said. "They don't know."
His name and his face may not yet register within teen headspace, but FitzGerald is already on heavy rotation in statewide political circles. A couple months after his showdown with Husted, reporters drove up from Columbus to quiz him on whether a run at the governor's office is on deck. His answer was characteristically careful but honest: It depends.
For now, FitzGerald seems content to focus on the job at hand. Ambitions aside, the county executive position nicely links up to his own textbook definition of effective government: putting working results into play.
"If you can just tell people, 'Here's what I'm going to do,' and I do it, you don't have to give a great speech or be charismatic or eloquent," he says. "That inspires confidence in people and shows that the system works."
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