Issue 6 backers not waiting for elections to dictate county's new course

At the end of 2009, we asked a few dozen Clevelanders to name one wish for the region in the new year. At the top of our own list was the hope that we'd be proven wrong about Issue 6, which we'd described as a blatant power grab dressed up to look like county government "reform."

No such luck. Issue 6 backers are getting more open in revealing that a powerful few will be making all the important decisions for the rest of us. Witness the media day they organized last week to announce the next step in the transformation of Cuyahoga County: the seating of 37 chairs for committees that will oversee the government transition.

The committees — dominated by big business and county administrators — will craft recommendations for the new government, which goes into effect January 1, 2010, under the leadership of a strong county executive (a CEO, in essence) and a relatively weak county council. Marty Zanotti, former mayor of Parma Heights and apparently self-appointed leader of the "New Cuyahoga Now" faction — and co-chair of the transition process (selected due to what qualifications it's unclear) — says our future elected county officials will be hard pressed not to accept his group's recommendations, which already include a policy decision to cut county expenses by 15 percent and redirect that money into economic development projects.

In other words, policy is already being made by the wealthy elite who funded Issue 6 — before the public votes on who it wants to make these decisions. Welcome to the best democracy money can buy.

Of course, The Plain Dealer, those proud cheerleaders of government "reform," got a private sitting at the Greater Cleveland Partnership's Higbee building offices for Thursday's announcement (the GCP fronted $100,000 for the Issue 6 petition drive and forked over another $25,000 to the campaign). Later, Zanotti and Cuyahoga County chief administrator James McCafferty (with a GCP-contracted media handler nearby) met with reporters from other news outlets at the downtown Cleveland library to talk about the next step toward New Shiny Government 2011.

It's hard not to get the sense that the county's corporate elite are in control.

The Eaton Corp. — which fronted one of the biggest wads of cash ($50,000) to last year's Issue 6 campaign — gets rewarded with three of the 37 seats: CEO/chairman Alexander "Sandy" Cutler, chief financial officer/V.P. Richard H. Fearon and chief information officer/senior V.P. William W. Blausey each get to sit at the table in a process leaders promise will be "inclusive."

Other Issue 6 donors rewarded with chairs include Medina-based RPM International ($10,000 campaign donation, now represented on the transition team by V.P. Randy McShepard); Forest City Enterprises ($30,000, represented by Forest City Commercial Group prez David LaRue); Thompson Hines LLP ($20,000, represented by partner Robyn Minter Smyers); and KeyCorp ($30,000, represented by executive V.P./chief human resources officer Tom Helfrich).

Other bigwigs on the transition team include Tom Zenty, chief executive of University Hospitals, and Sandra Pianalto, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Those entities did not donate to the campaign, so maybe that's what's meant by "inclusive."

Zanotti defends these appointments as necessary as the county looks to streamline its operations. "Corporations go through this all the time," says Zanotti, himself a CEO of a family-owned Strongsville company. "We're trying to capitalize on that knowledge."

Zanotti says the group's decisions will carry weight, and they took little time to make their first suggestion: Cut county spending by 15 percent and redirect that $50 million into "creating jobs" through "economic development."

Zanotti and McCafferty said the group will look for ways to eliminate "unneeded expenses" and not let those cuts affect county services. McCafferty stopped short of saying county workers would lose jobs; he noted that the county employee head-count is already down from 10,000 to 8,000. McCafferty says service cuts are unacceptable, and for the public who rely on those services, we hope this is true.

But in the public and private sectors, spending cuts almost always means layoffs. And if "economic development" projects are anything like those backed by Cleveland's elite in the past (like the Gateway project), then claims of sustainable job creation are specious at best.

The transition group is balanced out by a number of current county administrators and directors, among them Mary Denihan (county public information officer) and Deborah Southerington (county human resource director). The only chairpersons presently beholden to voters are Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, state representative Mike Foley, state senator Nina Turner and Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers.

The number of volunteers for the transition process is close to 1,000, and McCafferty admits that not everyone who signed up will be assigned to subcommittees that will form under the 37 chairs. Not all committee meetings will be public, but McCafferty says he wants to post minutes and updates on the county's website. "If this is not an open, inclusive process, it's not going to work," says McCafferty.

But how inclusive will the process be, really? Zanotti revealed that campaign-finance reform recommendations would be crafted solely by New Cuyahoga Now, a campaign faction he says is coming together as a formal policy group with elected officers (though it remains unclear who is still on board from last year's Issue 6 campaign). But why would New Cuyahoga Now — bolstered by its wealthy allies and a lack of campaign money restrictions — want to give away its edge? When told by Scene that some citizens who volunteered for transition committees wanted to work on campaign-finance reform, Zanotti said he would be willing to "take their names" and include their input.

When people voted for Issue 6, they voted for a new county charter. But it appears that voters got much more: an organization of self-appointed "community" members who are calling the shots when it comes to the future of the county. Ultimately, the transition group's final recommendations will go to the new elected officials through McCafferty, Gary Holland (county justice services director) and Joe Nanni (county human resources director). All three were appointed by the outgoing county commissioners. Unlike the rest of this spectacle, their appointments were actually called for by the voter-approved charter.

McCafferty, a respected, long-time county administrator, explained Thursday that the task was too big for three people. So we get a group of unelected people like Zanotti and Joe Roman of the Greater Cleveland Partnership to come along and save the day. But save the day for whom?

It's becoming clear who's making the rules to this game, and if a candidate for county executive has doubts about what's taking shape now, that candidate will have to make their arguments part of their platform, says Zanotti. But will that candidate have the money to drown out whatever message Zanotti and his allies want to send?

Warns Zanotti, "I wouldn't want to be the county executive that says no to substantive campaign-finance reforms and a code of ethics" — which, of course, aren't written yet. So are we talking about recommendations or ultimatums? Zanotti seemed to answer that question when he stated that the county's new leader would be remiss to ignore the corporate "star power" (The Plain Dealer's words) of the transition chairs.

Issue 6 voters: Is this turning out to be everything you hoped it would be?

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