Watching the Cuyahoga County’s government transition team in action, it's hard sometimes not to feel that they're play-acting democracy.

Take Tuesday’s five-hour “public engagement” committee meeting, where a panel of transition advisors vetted three public relations firms. Their goal: hire a firm that will control the transition team’s message to the media and citizens.

The money to pay for these firms will come from the same business interests that funded Issue 6, the successful campaign that passed Cuyahoga County’s new charter. The firms vying for the contract included a team comprising Burges & Burges/Brenda Terrell & Associates; Landau Public Relations; and Gap Communications/Cleveland365.com. (Landau was later dropped from consideration.)

The transition's request for proposals did not specify the value of the contract, and the bidders' proposals have not been revealed. (It's worth noting here that the mission of the hired PR guns will be to reduce skepticism from citizens who feel they're on the outside looking in at a persistently secretive process.)

Public relations/political strategists Bill Burges and Brenda Terrell, who have linked up for this effort, were involved in the closed-door drafting of the new charter and in the Issue 6 campaign. On Tuesday, Terrell opined that the transition process should have started sooner (transition advisors only have 10 months to put together their recommendations for the county’s new government). Transition co-chairman Marty Zanotti has also recently noted the short time frame; perhaps they should have supported Issue 5, which called for a year-long public discussion on reshaping county government.

In their pitch to transition advisors, Burges and Terrell played up their association to the winning Issue 6 campaign. Nobody mentioned that the Issue 6 coalition — steered by Burges and Terrell — pumped up public support for their cause by paying $100,000 for a petition drive to get their reform measure on the ballot. Now, however, Terrell proclaims that "we want our citizens to be less vulnerable to spin," and Burges preaches "democratizing" the process so as not to give the impression that the transition is in the hands of "elites."

But when asked if they would refrain from working for candidates in this year’s county election, they said flatly, no. Nevermind that only candidates with the backing of the "elites" would be able to afford their services — they see no conflict of interest. — Damian Guevara

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