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What the County Charter Got Wrong 

The document that set the county's new course could use a little fine-tuning

It was the document penned to save Cuyahoga County — from corruption, from government waste, from its endless economic doldrums, and from a rotund county commissioner lounging in his backyard tiki hut in Bedford Heights, plotting his next trip to Vegas at some contractor's expense.

In July 2008, 200 FBI agents swarmed county offices, a raid that led to the indictment and eventual conviction of dozens of county officials and their buddies. By late that same year, whispers surfaced that an abrupt change in Cuyahoga's government would be needed to clear the accumulated stench.

Then suddenly in early 2009, a charter appeared that outlined a new form of county leadership. And with the full-throated support of the area's business leaders and relentless promotion by The Plain Dealer, it was off and running to its seemingly inexorable victory on the ballot that fall. Also aiding the cause were the continued revelations about nefarious backroom dealings, coupled with heated promises of a streamlined government that would clear the decks for economic growth and guard against future scandal.

Amid the frenzy to build something new, almost nobody paused to question where the charter came from: who wrote it, when and where it was penned, and who took part in its creation. Much of that is still unknown; if minutes from those meetings exist, they've never been released to the public.

We do know that, unlike the charter authored by Summit County in 1979 — the only other county run by charter anywhere in Ohio — there was no opportunity for community participation and no public meetings till the ink was dry. Rumors about what special interests might have shaped it have circulated since the day it appeared.

Former Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald was elected in November 2010 to be the county's first-ever executive. He opposed the charter election, in large part because of how it was created.

"I objected to the way it was written," he says. "I thought we needed a charter, and I thought we should have a county executive. But the deliberations for the charter itself were not public. It's your constitution and everything should be out in the open."

The key changes brought about by the charter revolve around replacement of the incumbent officials with a single county executive and an 11-person council. And considering the charter's secretive and contentious beginning — including a lawsuit filed by one county official who lost her job before her term was up — the transition to the new government and the first nine months of its operation have gone remarkably smoothly.

While the charter seems to outline a strong executive/weak council form of government, a more balanced brand of leadership has emerged. New guidelines have been put in place for hiring and awarding contracts aimed at eliminating the standard thanks-for-hiring-my-nephew model.

But there's also plenty in the charter that officeholders and observers alike aren't happy with, and they're looking forward to making changes.

"The framers of the charter did an excellent job, and the new charter is working very well for Cuyahoga County," says councilman Dale Miller, a West Side Democrat. "However, in any new undertaking of this kind, some issues will arise based on experience."

Miller maintains a wish list of 10 changes he'd like to see. And he's not the only one.

Dueling Lawmen

The most visible challenge to the charter thus far arose over the role of the newly created position of county law director. FitzGerald claimed that the new director would represent the city in civil matters. But the move was decried by Prosecutor Bill Mason, who had previously handled all the city's legal business.

In early April, their feud was referred to Attorney General Mike DeWine, who ruled in Mason's favor.

"I said I would abide by it, even if it didn't go our way," FitzGerald told The Plain Dealer at the time. "It didn't go our way, and I don't agree with it."

Almost everyone interviewed for this story agrees that the charter needs to clarify the issue, and most agree with FitzGerald that DeWine blew the call.

"The law department should be given primary authority to represent the executive and the council on civil matters," says Miller. "It should also be made clear that the council may obtain its own legal counsel under some circumstances."

FitzGerald calls it "one of the biggest unresolved questions of the charter."

"I'll be an interested observer," he says. "I don't want to prejudice the deliberative process by saying too much about it. I'm sure Bill Mason is going to end up being outspoken about it."

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