Summit County: different process, different result

Proponents of Issue 6 have told Cuyahoga County voters that their reform plan is like Summit County's 1979 charter reform. The Plain Dealer in July said its reform was "akin" to Issue 6.

That's just not so. Summit County enacted a moderate form of charter government, driven by a broad coalition of citizen, political, labor and business groups. Issue 6 proposes radical county reform, backed primarily by one segment of the community — business — and driven by big-business money and over-hyped scandal-mongering by the PD.

Issue 6 supporters have propounded the myth that we've talked endlessly about reform and now it's time to act. That was true in Summit County. Its charter emerged from a decade of public discussions that included two elected charter commissions, two failed ballot charters and eventually a coalition that wrote a charter through a public, participatory process.

But Cuyahoga County's charter was tossed out to the public — and to community interests brought in at a later stage, seemingly to try to make the process look more broad-based — as a done deal. Cuyahoga County citizens have barely had the chance to learn what a charter or a charter commission is, let alone have input in the process.

Summit County's charter process was spearheaded by a coalition of groups with broad constituencies. Cuyahoga's was set in motion by a few self-appointed people with narrow constituencies and unclear agendas. The current effort appears to have begun with discussions between wealthy Lake County resident (and major Republican donor) Ed Crawford and county prosecutor Bill Mason, who under the new charter would be the only remaining elected county official — a clear conflict of interest with major potential for abuse of power. Soon after, retiring Parma Heights Mayor Marty Zanotti, a former Democrat with no apparent support base, joined the process.

The charter was written in meetings by a self-selected group that appears to represent mostly corporate interests; figuring out who was there and who they represent has been difficult. By contrast, the Summit County consortium included no elected county officials, although the heads of both political parties and local officials from Akron and the county's other cities and towns were at the table. And while business interests were involved in drafting the charter, so were community and civic groups. The process was public and inclusive.

Because they were invested in the creation of the charter, the campaign to pass it was also grassroots-driven, with the support of city and township officials and state representatives, among others. Citizen groups, particularly the League of Women Voters, gathered signatures to place it on the ballot. Issue 6's signatures were gathered by a professional, out-of-state group that was paid nearly $100,000.

Despite a lack of enthusiasm in some quarters for the changes, the inclusive process assured that opposition was minimal. Summit's campaign focused on education, and groups reaching out to their members and politicians to their constituencies. The Issue 6 campaign, lacking such grassroots support, has mounted a slick, professional marketing and advertising campaign, exploiting the corruption investigations helpfully overplayed by The Plain Dealer and fueled by huge donations from big-business interests like the Greater Cleveland Partnership, Forest City, Eaton Corporation and Pittsburgh-based National City Bank.

Summit opted for moderate charter reform. It eliminated the three commissioners in favor of a single county executive, but left the other elected officials in place and gave the sitting commissioners seats on the new county council. This was considered a compromise to derail opposition and provide a smoother transition. Currently, Summit elects the same offices as Cuyahoga except coroner (it has folded the auditor and recorder functions into other offices). Its 11-member council has eight district representatives and three at-large members.

Cuyahoga's 11-member council would include only district representatives, which many feel would divide the county into warring fiefdoms. The Issue 6 charter also eliminates all current elected county officials (except Bill Mason's office). This may appeal to the "throw all the bums out" mentality, but it's a recipe for transition fraught with conflict and chaos. The process lacked input and support from officials and community groups in the county's largest city, opening up the possibility of ongoing friction between county government and Cleveland's.

It's hard to look at the lists of Issue 6's endorsees, co-chairs and donors and not feel that this is an attempt to purchase county government and bring it under the control of big-business interests. While Summit County's charter government has had its problems — corruption and patronage scandals still plague it from time to time — it has had the continuing involvement of citizens who have amended it more than a dozen times. One has to wonder what opportunity citizens would have for input into a system put in place with $50,000 corporate donations.

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