Some Sunshine But Mostly Cloudy

County transition, charter, still difficult to scrutinize

Cuyahoga County government-transition leaders promised to make their work open and transparent two months ago. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio contends that nothing has changed, and the impression of secrecy remains a troubling concern. A spokesman for the open-government watchdog says that documents illuminating the work of the transition group — and specifically the supervisory transition executive committee — remain outside the scope of Ohio sunshine laws, even as the group shapes the county's government.

That concern — and lingering questions about anomalies in the new county charter — overshadows the endeavor of establishing the new government. Voters will elect a county executive and 11 county-council members in the fall, and the new regime starts business on January 1, 2011.

Citizens can't afford to take their eyes off the process.

"Whenever the government says, 'Go ahead and trust us, we'll do the right thing' — even if they say that with the best of intentions — it always ends up bad for the people," says ACLU spokesman Mike Brickner.

The seven-member transition executive committee is a self-appointed group that includes former Parma Heights mayor Marty Zanotti; RPM International executive Randy McShepard; Tri-C president Jerry Sue Thornton; Eaton Corp. CEO/Chairman Alexander "Sandy" Cutler; University Hospitals CEO Tom Zenty; Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson; and Cuyahoga County administrator Jim McCafferty. Officially, the group has met twice — and only one of those meetings was open to the public.

Suspicions that the group was working behind closed doors came to a head in February after Zanotti and McCafferty revealed on WCPN's The Sound of Ideas that much of the transition process would take place in private. Subsequent public outcry and threat of an ACLU lawsuit helped open up most of the meetings. But a ruling from Cuyahoga County prosecutor Bill Mason's office doesn't instill confidence that everything will be open, says Brickner.

In a letter responding to the ACLU's request for documents pertaining to the formation of the transition executive committee and related groups, Cuyahoga County's chief civil lawyer David Lambert writes that the executive panel is a "private group" and not a public body subject to sunshine laws: "It is my considered opinion that such voluntary, private groups are not public bodies and thus the requirements of Ohio's Public Records Law does not apply to them."

Even when self-appointed powerbrokers are shaping the new county government.

If transition leaders "don't believe they are subject to open meetings laws, then they may be able to have some informal meetings going forward that we may not be informed about," says Brickner. Documents or communications between the decision-makers can't be obtained, as long as this is the transition committee's stance.

"Moving forward, that's a little frightening," says Brickner.

Many transition work groups have been meeting in public since late February. But the myriad meetings and odd times — often during regular business hours, when many citizens are at work — make it difficult for the public to keep up, says Brickner.

"People have to be involved in crafting their government and should be engaged in the decision-making process," says Brickner. Without the legal guarantee of information under sunshine laws and the general inaccessibility of meetings, "It's going back to the idea that there are a few select people making all the decisions, and the rest of the people in the county are just going along with what they're saying."

A cynic might note that perhaps it's only fitting that the transition process lacks transparency. Little is known about the framers of the document that set this process in motion — the charter that was placed on the ballot as Issue 6. To this day, more than five months after its passage, there is no official accounting of how the charter was crafted. We don't know who was involved, in what capacity, or how often or where they met.

Eugene Kramer, a Cleveland lawyer sometimes credited with writing the 12-page document, did not return Scene's calls. Zanotti, who has acted as a point man for the process and helped to organize the executive committee, also ignored our requests. So it's been difficult to get answers about some of the peculiarities in the charter.

For example: Why do the residency requirements for the county executive and council differ so drastically? A county executive candidate need only live in the county for 30 days (the time it takes to qualify as a voter); that's in contrast to the two-year requirement county-residency for county-council members. The difference has sparked suspicion that the charter was set up to allow "candidate shopping" by the powerful business players who backed Issue 6.

This has also fueled suspicions that the charter framers wanted a strong executive and weak council.

The charter is vague on the council's duties and powers, aside from choosing a council president and vice president. "I think we viewed [council president] as a coordinating role," says former Shaker Heights mayor Judy Rawson, a high-profile charter supporter during the Issue 6 campaign. "I don't think there's more explicit power given to that person."

Council members will be expected to share staff and treat the position as a part-time job, explains Rawson. Even the traditional role of legislators, dealing directly with constituents, is neutered: "Council will obviously get a lot of constituent complaints," says Rawson. "There needs to be a very effective mechanism so they can refer the complaints to someone in the administration, and then administrative staff — which will have thousands of employees — can deal with the issue but make clear to the constituent that they are doing it on behalf of the council member who brought the issue to them."

"Our view," says Rawson, apparently speaking for the framers, "is that the council will set policy — I think they'll have committees — [and] they'll be passing legislation on new major policy initiatives, and they will also have this fiscal oversight role. Those are very crucial roles, but they don't require full-time efforts."

Something else brought to the attention of Scene is the appointing power awarded in the charter to the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the North Shore Federation of Labor, and a collective of nonprofit and educational organizations who promote economic development. Those entities will get to appoint a representative each to the new economic development commission.

"We were trying to make sure we had an economic development commission that was representative of the various viewpoints involved in trying to get a consistent countywide economic development strategy," says Rawson.

"We are way behind other regions in the way we deal with economic development because we don't do it in a coordinated way," she says. "The effort was to allow the county to be sort of a coordinator ... just giving a business a first place to touch base. We have a bunch of organizations doing a great job, but if they happen to talk or coordinate their efforts, it's just a matter of good luck and good staff. We were trying to institutionalize that."

But the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the North Shore Federation of Labor and the other groups are not public entities. Their leaderships are not elected, and they aren't necessarily subject to public records and meetings laws. So the explicit inclusion of nonpublic entities worries some, like Shaker Heights community activist Jeff Buster.

The alignment of political and business interests in county government is, says Buster, "business as usual, without the unreliability of the public process."

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