County transition process finally turns attention to campaigns and cash

It's an unlikely team: Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, a deft campaigner and driver of a formidable political machine, and a collection of grassroots political activists intent on lessening the influence of money — and people like Mason — on elections.

This group convenes for the first time this week to discuss ways to reform the financing of county political campaigns. Of course, all eyes will focus on Mason, who has an obvious interest in the recommendations the reformers make. Mason will be the highest-ranking county official standing when Cuyahoga County's new government is launched in 2011, as dictated by the passage of ballot measure Issue 6 last November. Mason, a Democrat, supported the initiative, which puts all other top Democratic elected officials out of a job by the end of the year. Mason won reelection in 2008 and doesn't appear to be going anywhere at the moment.

It's too late for the panel's recommendations to impact the county primary elections in September. But if they act quickly, Mason and his seven appointees can get their recommendations together before those elected to the new county offices are sworn in next January. 

The first order of business, according to several of the panelists, should be to schedule meetings that ensure maximum attendance. By that measure, the panel already has one strike against it — its first meeting is 9 a.m. Thursday, March 18, at the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland.

"To make anything meaningful, and to give any process credibility and trustworthiness, the public needs to have its fingerprints on this," says panelist Greg Coleridge, a Cleveland Heights resident and director of the Quaker-affiliated Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee. A veteran of a similar reform effort in Akron, Coleridge lobbied to be on this panel and says that no one person or faction should dominate the discussion. The process must include as much public input as possible, and meeting on a weekday morning in a building with metal detectors sends the wrong message.

Mason is going into this movement to fulfill a campaign pledge to voters, says his spokesman, but he faces serious doubters. "[Mason] and other Issue 6 supporters made a commitment to draft proposed county regulations, codes and/or charter provisions pertaining to campaign finance reform. This will be a collective effort by this group to make thoughtful, informed recommendations in the area of campaign finance," says Mason spokesman Ryan Miday in an e-mail to Scene.

Some of Mason's ideas, says Miday, include the electronic filing of campaign-finance reports; a lobbyist registry; public campaign financing; and contribution limits.

Mason's involvement in this panel is curious, to say the least. Mason was criticized last fall for accepting campaign contributions from his employees (he's since returned $72,000 to his workers, according to The Plain Dealer). That sort of campaigning is legal but should be scrapped, critics say, because employees could feel pressured to give to their boss. Mason was also criticized for trying to keep his campaign reports off the Internet, citing security for law-enforcement-affiliated contributors.

Skepticism in the community about Mason isn't lost on Catherine Turcer, who has been critical of Mason in her media analyses of Cuyahoga County political issues for Ohio Citizen Action's Money in Politics project, which studies how dollars affect Ohio campaigns. Mason invited Turcer to sit on the panel, and she says she has a "measured hopefulness" about their mission. She says she's not making the two-hour drive from Columbus for meetings to waste anyone's time.

Mason, says Turcer, should be willing to hear out his critics and address questions early or risk more skepticism. "This is a point where he has to put up or shut up," says Turcer. "This is where he shows that he's part of the solution and not part of the problem. This is the point where things get real.

"He's one member of a committee — I don't have a sense that he wants to be an obstacle," adds Turcer. "We need to tackle up front that Bill Mason is the last standing official in Cuyahoga County. It has to be part of the conversation. As long as [the process is open], things will go more smoothly."

"Smooth" isn't how one would describe the overall county transition: Leaders have yet to mobilize volunteers and only reluctantly opened their work sessions to the press and public. While Turcer has watched from afar, she will now get a close-up look at the process.

Like Coleridge, panelists Sally Hanley and Carla Rautenberg (both of Cleveland Heights) and Lois Romanoff (of Cleveland) lobbied to be part of the group. The four have been tackling the issue at a grassroots level, says Coleridge.

Rautenberg, a freelance writer, is interested in exploring a system of publicly financed elections in Cuyahoga County, particularly a model in which candidates could collect public money for campaigning if they pledge not to raise private dollars. "Politicians know that they're not doing a good job for the people when they're spending half to three-quarters of their time fundraising," says Rautenberg. "They hate doing it. I think that we should help them out."

Rautenberg is also concerned with how "Issue 6 and the county charter were bankrolled big-time by Eaton Corporation and Parker Hannifin" — both corporations gave $50,000 to the charter campaign, and Eaton's CEO, Alexander "Sandy" Cutler, pitched in another $10,000. All told, the Issue 6 campaign raised more than $600,000, much of it in large chunks from the business community. By contrast, the unsuccessful Issue 5, which proposed a slower reform process, raised just $77,000.

Rautenberg will get to rub elbows with Issue 6 supporter and volunteer reformer Don Scipione, president of Acme Express, Inc., a software development and consulting firm. He was Issue 6's campaign treasurer.

Scipione says he got to know Mason during the campaign and volunteered to be on the panel when he learned Mason was "taking the leadership on it." He wants the panel to look at practical improvements and worries about legal challenges to recommended reforms. "It seems like it's going to be almost impossible to come up with a system that extracts huge [private] money from [elections]," says Scipione. "One way is to finance [elections] publicly, but the question is, where do you get the money to do that?"

It also remains to be seen how the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission will impact local campaign-finance measures. And Akron's reforms, which were upheld by courts in 2003, have not been universally embraced: Mayor Don Plusquellic is being sued for allegedly not abiding by the rules.

"You have to come up with something that can't be squirmed around," says Scipione. "As soon as you try to do something, ingenuity finds a way around it. I don't mind shooting high, but there's no use wasting your time. You've got to be practical, but that doesn't mean you can't be revolutionary at the same time."

The panel also includes Becky Thomas, an activist with the League of Women Voters — Cuyahoga Area, who, like most of the other panelists, has networked with other reformers locally and nationally.

Turcer says she will recommend the inclusion of academics in the process. She also thinks other elected officials should get a say.

And of course, the public. But no other meetings are scheduled at this time, and the panel has no website for outreach or input.

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