Precious Moments

A look back at the year's best government-subsidized comedy.

Consider yourself fortunate to live in Ohio. While other states may bray about their quality of government, how they go about the serious work of the people with dour efficiency, they overlook a central component: entertainment value.

Not in Ohio. Here, elected officials understand that, after a hard day's work, Mr. and Mrs. Greater Cleveland deserve to come home, pick up the paper, and grab a few chuckles. Whether it's an amusing little corruption scandal or the lighthearted misplacement of several million dollars, our government can always be counted on to deliver the best in tax-subsidized humor. Call it the Jerry Lewis Theory of Public Policy.

As we ring in the new year, we look back on our favorite moments from 2000. Enjoy. After all, you paid for it.

10. Obsession is a terrible thing to waste: State officials spent the last two years courageously addressing Ohio's most pressing issue -- naked ladies dancing in bars. Unfortunately, the Attorney General's Office is the L.A. Clippers of constitutional law. The state once again got its ass kicked when a federal court struck down the latest round of anti-flesh-exposure rules.

Under a "loser pays" statute, two nightclubs submitted $33,000 in legal fees for reimbursement. The state had a month to contest them, and judges, with the understanding that most lawyers are money-grubbing scumbags, usually whittle them down.

Though the state was obsessed with stopping women named Candy with five kids and two cesareans from dancing naked in public, it wasn't so obsessed with guarding the people's loot. The Attorney General's Office blew off the deadline. Defense lawyers were last seen buying leopardskin sweater vests at Saks.

9. A Palm Beach of our own: Voters were turned away from the polls during the March Republican primary, after Cuyahoga County failed to order enough ballots. However, election officials claimed they weren't trying to screw the GOP. They simply didn't want people operating heavy machinery, such as voting equipment, under the influence of a 13th-century philosophy.

8. The check's in the mail: Some 5,000 single moms went without child support payments this summer after the Cuyahoga Enforcement Support Agency switched to a new computer system. Though the agency spent years preparing for the transition, thousands of moms received late checks -- or none at all. The problem was discovered only months after $6.5 million in various county payments disappeared in the mail. Officials quickly dumped the new computers and returned to using the abacus.

7. Save the children: Juvenile Judge Robert Ferreri gave custody of five-year-old Brielle Dominique to her father in August. What Ferreri didn't know was that her dad, Grambling Dominique, had been ordered by another court to stay away from the girl and her mother, and was also wanted on outstanding warrants. The problem, it seems, is that juvenile judges don't routinely check parents' criminal histories during custody cases. Nor, apparently, do they search for orders from other courts.

But judicial officials defended their actions, noting that resulting errors often make for wacky situational comedy, just like on Suddenly Susan, and thus spice up an otherwise dull court calendar.

Since Ferreri handed over the child, the frightened girl and her pop have disappeared.

6. The benefits of crime: Cleveland is forced to provide early release to dozens of bad guys each month due to overcrowding at the city workhouse. That's because the city has left a 40-bed wing vacant for five years.

When this was discovered in March, Council members criticized Mike White for yet another oversight. But a mayoral spokesman said early release is actually a visionary program designed to stimulate tourism. By allowing more criminals to roam the streets, visitors have a greater probability of getting mugged and thus receiving a big-city vacation experience. Said the aide: "We don't want some elderly couple from Fort Wayne to not get mugged and think they drove to Canada by mistake."

5. Good work if you can get it: No one seems to know what Cleveland's Boxing and Wrestling Commission actually does. But whatever it is, they don't do it often. Last spring, Mayor Mike requested raises for the three panel members, presumably because of their diligent work. However, it was later discovered that the commission hadn't met since 1998 -- if then -- and that the state had assumed the board's responsibilities in the 1980s.

The mayor eventually rescinded his raise proposal and called for an investigation. The probe would be launched as soon as someone at City Hall could figure out who actually sat on the commission.

4. The cutting edge of health care: Employees at the Northeast Community Mental Health Center are a casual bunch. If clients call for help with, say, thoughts of whacking themselves, happy workers are known to encourage these troubled souls to chill, maybe schedule an appointment next week; we'll get back to you. It's all part of the friendly, convenient service.

What wasn't common knowledge was Northeast's devotion to efficiency. When the publicly funded agency was threatened with the loss of financial support, Executive Director Donna Reed Coles encouraged staff to falsify records to cover gaps in patient care, two supervisors claim.

It was a prudent decision. By simply filling out the paperwork, the agency saved countless tax dollars that would have otherwise been wasted on helping people.

3. Adventures in finance: Accountants who suck at math often have difficulty finding employment. Fortunately, the City of Cleveland is always there for them.

For the fifth year in a row, auditors found the city's books a mess. There were million-dollar math errors, unexplainable numbers, and mistaken transfers. Best of all, the city still wasn't balancing its checkbook each month -- a year after the problem was first discovered.

Critics say accounting mishaps are costing the city thousands of dollars. But administration officials say this pales in comparison to the social costs of having hundreds of unemployed accountants trying to work the sandwich line at Subway.

2. Throwing bad money after bad: Housing officials suspected Associated Estates Realty Corporation of fraudulently managing its federally subsidized apartments. Instead of using a portion of rent subsidies to repair its four East Side buildings, where conditions were delightfully described as "life-threatening," the company allegedly pocketed the cash.

The U.S. Attorney's Office was preparing a $71 million fraud suit. HUD, however, found a quicker way to dispatch the pesky slumlord. It paid Associated Estates $1.78 million to abdicate control of the buildings and waived HUD's right to sue or fine the company.

"This sends a strong message to anyone thinking of defrauding the agency," said one HUD official after the settlement. "If you can't abide by the rules, we'll slam you with a check so large you won't know what hit you. And that's a promise."

1. Fiscal prudence at its finest: The state announced this year that it has spent $82 million since 1994 to provide nursing home care for dead people. Most of that money was eventually recovered, since the dead tend to be frugal with their expenses, an audit revealed. But $14 million has yet to be retrieved, and many people are still paid an average of $121 a day, more than a year after they've croaked.

Officials blame the state's shoddy record-keeping, which consists of carving Mayan petroglyphs on a cave wall near Canton. Yet law-and-order legislators believe the problem can be solved only by a new round of get-tough statutes. Possible remedies include sentencing offenders to a year of public service as the Browns' offensive coordinator or forcing them to listen to a Michael Stanley Band boxed set.