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County Reformers, Overcome Your Connections

After months of haggling, state legislators last week appointed and funded a nine-member panel to study Cuyahoga County government and recommend reforms. Final proposals are due by November 7 and would be subject to a vote by county residents.

Given the nature of county politics — entrenched personalities, cozy dealings between businesses and politicos, offices teeming with patronage and lifers with little accountability — reform is unquestionably long overdue. But as always, the devil is in the details, and a closer look at who Gov. Ted Strickland, House Speaker Jon Husted and Senate President Bill Harris rounded up raises some skepticism. How much reform can we expect from folks who are fairly entrenched and connected themselves?

Let's start with Strickland's choices:

David Abbott is executive director of the George Gund Foundation and the recently appointed chairman of the regional non-profit collective Fund for our Economic Future. Those two groups joined with others to fund an independent study of county government finances. The results — which quantified but did not analyze spending — were released last month.

Abbott started his career in Cuyahoga County political circles as Commissioner Tim Hagan's assistant during Hagan's first term, starting in 1982. Hagan opposed county reform plans in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. In May, Hagan put forth a plan to eliminate all elected county offices except judges, prosecutors and — surprise! — the commissioners. This would concentrate even more power in the three commissioners' hands.

Stanley Miller, the executive director of the Cleveland NAACP and retired business executive, means well. He's often seen at rallies opposing police brutality against African Americans and at fund-raisers to support local black youth. But Cleveland NAACP President George Forbes reportedly presides with an iron fist. Stanley Tolliver, a civil rights attorney, resigned from the local chapter's board last year after accusing Forbes of strong-arming board members into voting his way.

From 1974 to 1989, Forbes was one of Cleveland's most powerful city council presidents and has kept his hand in local politics. Forbes was also a member of the Bureau of Workers' Compensation oversight board that failed to keep executives from stealing. Last year, Forbes pleaded guilty to violating ethics and conflict-of-interest laws.

Judy Rawson, the former mayor of Shaker Heights, sounds promising. Her track record on improving regional government recommends her to the job. Longtime Shaker residents and colleagues say Rawson is hardly a cog in the county politics wheel and well suited to critique the system.

On to Husted's picks:

Ernest Wilkerson is president of the minority-owned law firm Wilkerson and Associates. He was appointed by Cleveland officials to serve on the 11-member Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Convention Facilities Authority. The CFA is tasked with bringing a new convention center to Cleveland — a project with questionable public support but popular among county commissioners and several key business interests.

Kathleen Barber might be the wisest pick of them all. A former political science professor at John Carroll University, Barber researched county reform in the 1990s and has repeatedly recommended a single county executive with direct accountability to voters.

Jim McMonagle served as a county Common Pleas Court judge for 13 years. Since then he's become a corporate finance lawyer in the Cleveland offices of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease.

Finally, from Harris' list:

Bruce Akers was executive secretary to Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk in the 1970s. He's worked for just about every bank in the region, including National City, Key, Society and Ameritrust. He now serves as the Republican mayor of Pepper Pike and has been prominent among local mayors advocating for regional cooperation. He's also the president of the county Mayors and City Managers Association, which makes appointments to the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Convention Facilities Authority, and has been outspoken in his support of the commissioners' plans for the so-called Medical Mart.

Jerry Hruby has been the mayor of Brecksville for the last 20 years. He began his career there, in 1968, with the Brecksville Police Department. He's a former member of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's board of trustees.

The number of buildings named after former Congressman Louis Stokes testifies to his legacy as a pioneering black politician and activist. Today, the 83-year-old Stokes is on the board of directors for Forest City Enterprises (run by Sam Miller, who's pushed for a convention center near his Tower City property). Stokes is also senior counsel with Squire, Sanders and Dempsey. One of the law firm's partners is Fred Nance, who was recruited by county commissioners earlier this year to broker a deal with Medical Mart Properties.

You'd be hard pressed to find nine people with more understanding of how county government works. The test of the commission's effectiveness, however, will be in how blunt the members are in pointing out what doesn't work and why - in other words, assigning blame, possibly in the direction of the elected officials who appointed them. That will determine whether their recommendations galvanize voters or end up on a shelf.

More by Charu Gupta


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