Blind Mice

As the feds chased the county's rats, others saw no evil

I could not contain my laughter after reading the critical comments in a recent article in Scene made by county politicians about the Cuyahoga County Charter and their lack of knowledge over how it came to be. My second reaction is that it's scary that they know so little about the community they serve.

Many of those who hold office in the new county government did little or nothing to challenge what we now see was corruption, incompetence, and patronage on the scale of a Third World country. How could they know anything about the charter when most were against it from the beginning?

The truth is, we are lucky to have anything resembling a decent government after having been led by a Democrat political machine that was morally, intellectually, and civically corrupt for so long.

County Executive Ed FitzGerald says he was opposed to the charter as it was written. But he was given an opportunity to review it and offer changes, which he never did. FitzGerald was more interested in running for county auditor than seeking reform at the time. As a matter of fact, those behind the charter movement spent considerable time begging the political community for support.

Worse yet, no established political figure in the party had the vision to see that they were on a ship that was sinking from their own arrogance, slothfulness, and stupidity. The lack of vision on the part of veteran politicians supposedly gauging the pulse of the community was stunning.

What really forced the reform that led to the charter was a perfect storm, and it started one fateful day in May 2008 when the county commissioners ejected two Plain Dealer reporters from a public meeting. The increasing and incredible arrogance of County Commissioners Tim Hagan and Jimmy Dimora had reached its apogee.

Cleveland journalism has long had an avuncular relationship with political figures, and this sometimes subverts behind-the-scenes reporting. But luck would have it that an outsider was at the helm of The Plain Dealer at the time: Susan Goldberg, who became editor of the newspaper in 2007 after a career with the Knight Ridder chain.

Reporters' dismissal from a public meeting normally would make for minimal coverage or no coverage at all. But under Goldberg, the incident marked the beginning of a crusade that was fueled by the FBI investigation into the county offices that broke in July 2008.

Meanwhile, in the wake of a Cleveland Bar Association study into government reform in 2004, there began a series of meetings on the part of ad hoc citizen groups to discuss implementing reforms in county government.

Lute Harmon, the former publisher of Cleveland Magazine, organized a series of informal meetings, inviting various suburban mayors and other interested parties. Involved was a lawyer, Gene Kramer, who had spent a lifetime studying government and was working on a charter of his own. Former Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti would later lead the formal charter campaign.

As the county scandal erupted and The Plain Dealer covered it with dark and damning headlines, the cries for government reform reached a point where a series of public hearings were held to examine the issue. While supposedly bipartisan in nature, the Democratic Party did its best to co-opt the proceedings — especially when former Congressman Lou Stokes publicly declared the black community was against reform.

The group organized by Harmon was drawing increased interest, and he had begun to raise money for a charter campaign. Kramer offered up the charter he had written. Not only that: Many political figures were approached and asked for their input and support. Nobody cared, because they thought business as usual was more important.

While FitzGerald criticizes the charter and the manner in which it was developed, chances are he would not have the county's top job if his colleagues in the Democratic Party had been in charge of reform. The party killed reform in 1996 and tried to derail the charter effort.

No one was luckier in the chain of events that led to reform than FitzGerald, who is now clearly in a position to gain from a circumstance he opposed.

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