The Most Elusive Reform

Cuyahoga's new government overlooks campaign inequities

Cuyahoga County's new government charter was unveiled last year amid the rising drama of the FBI's takedown of some of the county's top players — characters who for years had brazenly interlocked campaign donations for jobs, gifts for contracts, and other mutual favors.

The new charter arrived with extravagant claims that the reformed government would clean up corruption and lead Cuyahoga into a brighter tomorrow. And for whatever reason, it would apparently accomplish this with no campaign-finance regulations of any kind.

With no limits on donations, Republican county executive candidate Matt Dolan was able to accept $200,000 and $300,000 checks from his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan, and his uncle, Cablevision boss Charlie Dolan — something he could not have done if he had been running for state or federal office. But most proponents of the charter didn't seem too troubled by that.

When transition work groups — organized to make non-binding recommendations to the incoming officials — were announced, there was no such group devoted to campaign-finance reform.

"When I saw the reform measures quote unquote being 'promoted,' there was this giant missing hole in these supposedly comprehensive reforms — money in politics," says Greg Coleridge, director of the Northeast Ohio American Friends Society, whose group was responsible for helping cap contributions in Akron. "Several of us, having seen corruption and the power of corporations, started writing and e-mailing and asking questions. How this could be missing was sort of mind-boggling."

Their reward for speaking up: an additional group devoted to finance reform — and invitations to take part in it.

But to Coleridge, the arrangement seemed fishy. There was nothing official about the capacity in which the group served; it was simply one committee in a universe of unofficial committees, making unofficial recommendations that nobody would be bound to listen to.

Meeting from March through July, the committee — which included an IT expert, a former judge, and other leaders of activist groups — came up with recommendations in four major areas, including electronic filing of campaign-finance reports, lobbying reforms, and contribution limits.

Another, more controversial recommendation was the public financing of campaigns, or what has come to be known as "Cuyahoga County Clean Elections." Unlike the other aspects of reform, public financing is an untested concept in Ohio, although states like Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut have versions of it.

"Some politicians are too scared to envision such a system," says Cleveland attorney and committee member Subodh Chandra, a long-time proponent of more transparent and less money-driven elections. "I've already heard that from a few of them: 'The public doesn't want to spend money on public financing.' The cost is a small price to pay for a government that is not sucking at the teat of moneyed interests."

Under the committee's proposal, use of public money to run would be voluntary. So a wealthy candidate such as Ken Lanci could still spend his own money to slap his mug on dozens of county buses. But, Coleridge says, "You can offset money to a certain extent by people power. And it can become a campaign issue. You can say, 'I have chosen not to accept private money; my opponent has not.'

"With rules like this, Larry and Charlie Dolan could only give $1,000," says Coleridge. Campaigns would be based on ideas and grassroots support — not on coming from the outside as a carpetbagger [Dolan moved from Geauga County to run] and using your family's money."

Chandra sees the potential for public financing to open up races to what he refers to as "more — and more interesting — candidates." Under such a system, candidates would be required to raise small amounts from a certain number of supporters to qualify, thus proving that they have grassroots support.

"There could be people who are not necessarily either traditional politicians or moneyed businesspeople to say, 'I have a large social network through some alternative form of civic activism, and I can activate that network with a bunch of five-dollar contributions to get myself on the ballot and qualify for clean election financing," he says. "Somebody like Lanci would still have had the opportunity to run, but others would have the opportunity as well. It would allow a level playing field for people without certain surnames or family fortunes to offer themselves in service to community."

With the recommendations formalized and presented to the incoming county council members and new County Executive Ed FitzGerald, the next step is to get them enacted. While the charter must be reviewed in 2012 and can be amended at that point, committee members hope officials will put some of them into effect sooner.

"At minimum, the new county government needs to have a one-stop transparency place, where they have information about contracts the county has, where they have ethics statements online and campaign contributions online," says reform committee member Catherine Turcer, director of Ohio Citizen Action's Money in Politics project. "When you think about the problems in Cuyahoga, if there'd been a spotlight on them, they would have been stopped much sooner."

Chandra believes it's essential to enact the regulations sooner than later. "Once you have these people feeling like comfortable incumbents," he says, "they're not going to do it." He adds that the burden is on citizens to prod their new leaders.

"People need to read [the reform suggestions] and contact the county council members and county executive, tell them this is important, that they can't push this off into some distant future. The system we have is new and fresh, and it means we have to take a fresh approach to how we elect people."

FitzGerald could not be reached for comment as of press time.

"My sense is that he is open to it, but it's not going to be a high priority for him unless the public exhibits a sustained interest in this," Chandra says.

"This is Cuyahoga County reform 2.0. We have the potential to be one of the most progressive counties in the country. Alas, if we don't do this, we will have simply accepted the status quo: that money controls everything."

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