Give Us Your County and No One Gets Hurt

The story behind the Issue 6 power grab

The political orgy known as Cuyahoga County reform — Issues 5 and 6 — finally climaxes November 3.

It's a fight for control and power. Labor-backed Democrats want to keep the tight grip they've historically held on elected county posts. They face challenges from rogue Democrats, millionaire Republicans, do-good reformers and businesses interests, who all say the system needs to be changed.

The drama stems from a decidedly dry proposal. Issue 6 transforms county government by introducing a new county charter. Instead of the traditional three-seat board of county commissioners, this restructured government would be led by a single county executive and an 11-member council. The new charter would also eliminate the elected "row officers," like the auditor and sheriff; those posts instead would appointed by the executive, with approval from the council. Those appointees include a fiscal officer, who would take the place of the auditor and treasurer. The only other elected official beside the executive and the council would be the county prosecutor.

The driving force behind Issue 6 is a motley crew that includes Democrats Bill Mason and Martin Zanotti, Republican fundraiser Ed Crawford, the local League of Women Voters, the Greater Cleveland Partnership and the biggest corporations in the region.

Proponents of competing Issue 5 are calling for less radical change. They instead want voters to create a commission that will consider alternatives for government restructuring. This, they say, will give the public more opportunity to deliberate. The figures behind Issue 5 are old-guard, labor-backed Democrats, including the current county commissioners, past and present members of Congress, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cleveland City Council.

The issues have created a clash complicated by the federal investigations that have targeted commissioner Jimmy Dimora and county auditor Frank Russo. While country reform has been explored in the past, the corruption scandal has given this most recent effort traction.

County commissioner Peter Lawson Jones admits that the commissioners brought forth Issue 5 after labor leaders voiced concerns about Issue 6. Jones and other supporters of Issue 5 say the current reform effort is a rushed attempt to take advantage of the public's response to county corruption headlines.

The complaints come from some people who played a role — albeit limited — in crafting the Issue 6 charter, including Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the North Shore AFL-CIO. In a July 10 letter to the commissioners, Applegate criticized the charter process because it didn't involve key constituencies. Applegate also said the charter process was hurried and not transparent enough.

"This is a cynical move to exploit a difficult situation," wrote Applegate. "It is not likely to produce the results desired by an angry electorate but very nicely accomplishes a variety of other agendas that have little or nothing to do with improving county government."

Proponents of Issue 6 have criticized the commissioners' countermeasure as a stall tactic to keep labor Democrats in power. They say the new charter creates a clear leader, more accountability and an improved focus on putting people to work.

Zanotti says he is interested in fostering regionalism and that change has been a long time coming. "I really believe our region is dying and the one engine we have to turn that around is the county. I felt this was our time to reform government." It was the county commissioners who "went behind closed doors, without public discussion, without public hearings," says Zanotti. But when reminded that there weren't public hearings to draft the Issue 6 charter, Zanotti says only, "They weren't required."

"The idea that we're going from town to town, village to village, it's good as rhetoric," says Zanotti. "If people didn't think it was very good idea, they wouldn't have signed the ballot," he adds, referring to the 53,000 petition signatures — as if hiring a professional firm to gather signatures, as Issue 6 backers did, is the same as holding public hearings. "November 3," says Zanotti. "There's your public hearing."


Jones, who visited Scene last week, says that he and commissioner Tim Hagan have been treated unfairly. He says headlines in the Plain Dealer have implied that he is somehow connected to the federal probe. Interestingly, he voices a concern similar to one mentioned by Jimmy Dimora: The Plain Dealer is one of the key forces behind promoting county reform. "I don't know any other way to put it — the paper has an obsession with Issue 6," says Jones.

Jones says he can't even play basketball without someone taking him to task about Issue 5. He tells a story about a pickup basketball game he was involved in this summer at a Cleveland State gym. Playing opposite Jones was Plain Dealer publisher Terry Egger. According to Jones, Egger told the commissioner: "I want to tell you how disappointed I am with this Issue 5 you proposed." When Egger called Issue 5 a diversion, Jones said he responded defensively.

"Yes, we're obstructionists," Jones remembers saying. "We're trying to obstruct a bad idea from becoming a reality."

Egger confirms that he expressed his disappointment with Jones but said he was offering his own opinion. "I thought Issue 6 had been brought forward in good faith by the voters," says Egger. "He disagreed." When asked if his ties to civic and business organizations — he is a member of boards for the Cleveland Clinic and the Greater Cleveland Partnership — shows the paper's hand on county reform, Egger says: "I know that nothing that I am involved with, or have been involved, would compromise our journalism."

Jones and other Democrats have exposed that Issue 6 represents the interests of big business and power-hungry Republicans. They point to powerful influences behind Issue 6, starting with Ed Crawford, a wealthy Republican fundraiser who has hosted George W. Bush at his Kirtland home — in Lake County.

Mason has publicly said that he became friends with Crawford about eight years ago. Crawford — CEO of Cleveland-based Park-Ohio Holdings Corp. — was involved in the early talks that led to Issue 6, but his influence remains unclear.

Mason, who did not respond to Scene's request for comment, is an enigma when it comes to reform. He has no known history with the issue, but he commands a power base from the proscecutor's office. Political observers say it will be interesting to see what Mason does if Issue 6 should pass.

Zanotti too is a political riddle. He's a Democrat who broke from the party when he supported Republican Debbie Sutherland in her bid to oust Jones last year. The decision pissed off then-Democratic Party leader Dimora. Zanotti's brother David is leader of the conservative policy group the Ohio Roundtable.

Zanotti calls the "Republican takeover" theory a tactic to mobilize and strike fear in Democratic voters. He says he is not going to run for a county seat if Issue 6 passes. Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers is the only registered Republican on the Issue 6 steering committee, and he calls the theory "patently absurd." "This Republican takeover idea gives me one of the biggest laughs I've ever come across," says Akers.

Akers predicts that Republicans might have a shot at two seats should Issue 6 pass. His prediction is based on maps devised by the proponents of Issue 6. Those maps divide the region into eleven districts, and the drafters acknowledge that they were conscious of race and voting trends when they sliced the county up.

The issue has also sliced up minority leadership, and many minority leaders say that they were left out of the process of drafting the Issue 6 charter. Judy Rawson, a former mayor of Shaker Heights who was deeply involved in Issue 6, admits that the group mistakenly left out Hispanic leaders, but says the argument that the coalition worked behind closed doors is "bogus." "I think that it's simply an effort to kill this," says Rawson. "We invited just about everybody who is complaining now."

Some African-American leaders, including congress-woman Marcia Fudge, county recorder Lillian Greene and state Senator Nina Turner, became involved — but in the latter stages of the charter-drafting process. Greene and Fudge have since jumped ship and are now backing Issue 5, but Turner stuck it out and is paying a price. The Call and Post criticized Turner as the "lone black who is carrying the water for white folks."

"I am disheartened. ... I'm angry about it," Turner tells Scene. "They are fear-mongering in the black community, and that's not right."

Turner says she is proud to represent African Americans as an officeholder, but says she ultimately represents a variety of people. "I have blacks and whites in my district, rich and poor, the educated and not so educated. The only way we can change this is if we come together."

Various parties have united to talk county reform in the past. The first big push for reform in recent memory came in 1995, and that too was in the wake of a county scandal, after county leaders had mismanaged an investment fund. A 14-month study by a citizens committee concluded that the structure of county government was outdated. They recommended changes, including combining some offices, that would save more than $5 million in salaries and benefits. But the commissioners at the time — Hagan, Mary Boyle and Lee Weingart — declined to put the proposal on the ballot. Hagan told The Plain Dealer this summer that the commissioners rejected the proposal because "there was no support for it." (Hagan did not answer Scene's request for an interview.)

In 2004, a coalition that included the Cleveland Bar Association, the League of Women Voters and Cleveland State University explored reforms. However, their effort was complicated by a push from Republicans who wanted their own measure on the ballot. At the time, Republicans advocated an executive-council government, but the idea never gained steam.

Reform was being explored again last year, even before the FBI raids on county offices in July 2008. Governor Ted Strickland and legislative leaders appointed an eight-member panel of clout-wielding county residents to study possible reforms for Cuyahoga County. The group included former Congressman Lou Stokes, Akers and Rawson, and convened for the first time on the Saturday before the FBI raids.

The Commission on Cuyahoga County Government Reform met over three months and held nine public hearings (which Rawson says were sparsely attended). The commission ultimately concluded that the county lacked transparency and confused constituents. They noted that the eight elected administrative officials worked autonomously with little oversight. They also said the lack of a legally designated leader among the three commissioners hurt the county.

The commission recommended a three-member county commission that included an elected president, thus creating one clear go-to person. They also recommended scrapping elections for auditor, clerk of courts, recorder, coroner, treasurer and engineer. The three commissioners, prosecutor and sheriff would remain elected positions. The others would be folded into departments answering to the county administrator and ultimately, the president of the board of commissioners.

That plan did have its detractors, including Republican members Jerry Hruby and Akers. The Plain Dealer proclaimed that the 6-2 vote to adopt the plan "signaled the death knell for a Republican Party-backed move create up to an 11-member elected council and an elected county administrator."

The commission forwarded its study to the state legislature, where it effectively died.

But Akers says the effort revealed much about the current county government setup. "I was shocked that commissioners pass out a budget to row offices. There's no accountability, no reporting back — [the budgets were sent] out and that's it," he says. "Everyone does their own hiring and personnel. There's no centralized purchasing. An employee-evaluation program was minimal to nonexistent. When we asked one official about this, he said 'I don't need to do that; I know my employees.' That's a hell a way to run things."

Akers says reform can't wait. "I truly believe if [Issue 6] doesn't pass, it's the death penalty of the county." He says a reform measure on the ballot next year (as Issue 5 proposes) would be overshadowed by senate and governor races and "the momentum would be lost."

"We'll have lost more people, more companies, more jobs," says Akers. "I really fear for the future of this county. I'm in this thing heart and soul; this is our crucial hour."

Jones knows that the county government is in need of some structural tweaking. Several of those adjustments include consolidating various administrative offices like human resources. He worries that the new charter's mandate for economic development will threaten social services.

The question of good government is not in systems, he says, but in the hands of those who take the time to vote.

"There's no prophylactic for corruption, other than picking the right people," says Jones. "The best safeguard is when the citizens are engaged."

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