Last week voters overwhelmingly approved Issue 6 — a charter to restructure county government – and unwittingly reinforced the jaded notion that money gets you everything in politics. Campaign fundraising wasn't even close; corporate supporters of Issue 6 pitched in most of the $609,000 used in the winning campaign, compared to a meager $77,000 raised by the backers of competing Issue 5 (which called for continued study of county government reform).
It's clear that the passage of Issue 6 benefits the area's big-money elite. The Greater Cleveland Partnership led the charge, paying $100,000 for a paid petition drive to place Issue 6 on the ballot. The list of corporate supporters for county restructuring included Parker Hannifin Corp., National City Bank, Forest City Enterprises, Ernst and Young, Cliffs Natural Resources, Baker Hostetler, KeyCorp, Sherwin Williams Co., and the Eaton Corporation.
Days before the election, you couldn't drive anywhere in Cleveland without seeing a pro-Issue 6 sign. Combine that visibility with the Plain Dealer's non-stop barrage of "county in crisis" headlines, and Issue 6 was destined for victory, most observers say.
Yet all the money in the world can't guarantee a fix for the kind of corruption the feds have unearthed in their lengthy investigation. Voters in Cuyahoga County were taken in by big money's big deception on Issue 6: That it would address and clean up corruption in county government. Nothing in the new charter can really prevent corruption.
Only time will tell if our new government will give us the kind of self-serving officials the "reformers" of Issue 6 rallied against. Here are four things to watch for to tell if the new system will be as easily influenced by money and favors as the one we're scrapping.
A transition process dominated
by business interests
Issue 6 was written by a handful of never-identified people without community involvement. When a broader, more representative second tier of people was brought in, they were told that for all practical purposes the work of creating a charter was done. Their presence was simply to make the charter appear more widely supported.
So it's hardly surprising that they launched the more representative Issue 5 in response.
At least 34 of the 41 members of the Issue 6 co-chair committee are connected to business, and there was little or no representation from education, labor, social services, neighborhood groups, the faith community and the Hispanic community, to name just a few. Most of the endorsing mayors were either Republicans and/or represent tiny, white, outer-ring enclaves. Donations to the campaign came in chunks that would represent annual income for most of us (Eaton Corp. and Parker Hannifin Corp. pitched in $50,000 apiece).
Now that 6 has passed, the county board of commissioners must assign three high-ranking county administrators to oversee the transition. They have yet to do so, but county administrator James McCafferty, the county's ranking bureaucrat, has taken on the responsibility. He's already working on a transition budget and will have to consider myriad details about the makeover. When asked how much the transition is expected to cost, McCafferty declined to give an estimate but noted, "It's going to cost something."
Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones is already resigned to the fact that his term as county commission has been truncated by the passage of Issue 6. Jones, like Scene, has heard that some of the county's rank-and-file workers are fearful for their jobs. Jones says workers — a force of 8,500 — must be kept in the loop on their status. Considering the number of cuts in recent years, Jones sees little room for downsizing. "I think all hands will be needed on deck," he says.
Jones says he's committed to fighting for the continued existence of programs he had a hand in, including family, arts and economic development programs. Issue 6 focused primarily on economic development. If those interests are not balanced in the transition, look for continued emphasis on flashy pie-in-the-sky projects at the expense of rebuilding our neighborhoods and developing our human capital. That's corruption of the most devastating sort.
Bill Mason's next move
Will Bill Mason decline to continue as county prosecutor? This is essential to avoid the appearance that the new government is already compromised. Mason was one of the instigators of the restructuring process, despite his lack of background or apparent prior interest in government reform. He was the only current elected county official involved in the process and conveniently, his was the only job — and political power base — retained under the restructuring.
Even if Mason were a saint, the temptation to abuse political power in the absence of the competing power bases that he personally eliminated would be strong. As it is, there are already questions about Mason's inappropriate exercise of power, questions The Plain Dealer helpfully downplayed during the Issue 6 campaign. It's hard to see how the new government could be trusted if Mason has unchecked political power.
A candidate for county executive receiving large donations from the same big-business interests that poured money into passing the issue
Already the names surfacing — like Chris Ronayne and David Abbott — have tight ties with the corporate community and experience (and good reputations) in big-project management, but little involvement with the difficult social issues facing the region. Perhaps such a candidate would show different colors in a campaign, refusing to accept huge corporate donations and focusing as much on human needs as on managing development. If so, they'd deserve a listen. If not, they'd be troubling choices.
Harriet Applegate, executive director of the North Shore AFL-CIO and a staunch opponent of Issue 6, said a desirable county executive is one that understands the needs of all county residents, not just business interests. "It'll really have to be a renaissance person, somebody who cares about everybody," says Applegate. She's wary of an out-of-town CEO-type who doesn't understand the needs of the community.
One name to surface is that of Republican State Rep. Matthew Dolan, son of Indians owner Larry Dolan. Dolan says he's considering leaving his Geauga County home and moving to Cuyahoga to run for the office. Dolan was at one point considered a shoo-in to be Speaker of the House if the Republicans retained control after the November 2008 election; but when they didn't, he wasn't even able to install himself as minority leader. Is he looking for another position to launch himself into higher office?
Many people are rightfully suspicious that no campaign finance controls were written into the Issue 6 charter on purpose. If big-business money flows to a particular candidate, their suspicions will be confirmed.
Corporate cheerleading from
Ohio's largest newspaper
Critics like Jones and Applegate continue to call out The Plain Dealer for its involvement in the county restructuring debate, a two-pronged attack that combined unabashed pro-Issue 6 editorializing with reporting that played up the paper's tiresome "county in crisis" slogan. The newspaper never really spelled out the political motives of the players behind Issue 6, leaving readers to try to piece together the true story for themselves — a nearly impossible task. That fueled charges that the paper acted as a shill for the wealthy and privileged of Greater Cleveland. The day after the election, the PD gloated in an editorial that voters "weren't fooled." In fact, the PD was a key player in making sure they didn't have the information they needed to avoid being fooled.
Can the paper be trusted to watchdog the restructuring process, the new government and a hierarchy it's campaigned for? Applegate says the paper has become "obsessed with being a big political player. It's not a paper, it's propaganda. They talk about a one-party county — what about [the dangers of] a one-newspaper town?"