Issue 6 backers finding that the few citizens paying attention are as skeptical as ever

Early criticism of the Cuyahoga County transitional team created suspicion that a hidden hand was moving pieces for political advantage.

That's not quite true. It turns out there are several hands, some of them belonging to members of the political coalition behind the ballot initiative Issue 6 that mandated a reorganization of county government. They include influential corporate executives, policy makers and public administrators. A powerful county politician — the most powerful — has his fingers at the ready, promising change yet again. Their chess game is our future county government.

During the campaign, Issue 6 critics charged that it was crafted behind closed doors by a select few and passed thanks to significant funding from the business community. Today, almost 10 months before a new form of county government will take effect, critics continue to raise serious questions about the transparency of the process and the accountability of some of those running it.

The overseer of the transition is a 36-member coalition of appointed county administrators and de facto transitional leaders, members of the winning campaign group New Cuyahoga Now. These advisors, seated in committees, will come up with a set of recommendations on how the new government will work. The seating of the committees — stacked disproportionately with corporate representation compared to other sectors of the community — and their announced goals of slashing county spending and redirecting funds toward economic development have been challenged by some, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

After recent questions about how the members of the committees were chosen and on what criteria, Marty Zanotti, the most vocal public face of Issue 6 and now co-chairman of the transition, told Scene that an eight-person steering committee set up the transition work groups and selected chairs after closed-door discussions late last year. That eight-person steering committee included Zanotti, former Shaker Heights mayor Judy Rawson and lawyer Steve Kaufman (representing New Cuyahoga Now); Joe Roman, executive of the Greater Cleveland Partnership and Alexander "Sandy" Cutler, CEO of Eaton Corporation (representing the business community), and county administrators Jim McCafferty, Gary Holland and Joe Nanni (appointed by the sitting but soon-to-be-deposed county commissioners).

Zanotti also says that county prosecutor Bill Mason — the only current elected official who keeps his job in the new government — has put himself at the helm of a crucial issue, campaign-finance reform. Zanotti says this is because of "legal ramifications." New Cuyahoga Now will work on a code of ethics to pass on to future elected officials, but adds, "There's nothing we can do now that can affect the elections this November."

Mason, you may recall, was scrutinized late last year for accepting campaign contributions from his employees (even The Plain Dealer, which was generally favorable toward Issue 6 and its backers, took a hard look at this). And it remains unclear if citizens eager to implement campaign reforms will be invited to participate in the Mason-controlled process.

So it's been a bumpy February for the transition team. Seemingly repentant, McCafferty and Zanotti have tried to appease the ACLU and activists by opening policy work sessions, but the central questions remain: Why do unelected and largely self-selected people seem to have so much power to shape county government? To whom do they answer? Just who is in charge, anyway?

That was the sentiment behind many questions posed at a panel of advisors at a public forum last week. Judging from those inquiries — and from outside criticism heard by Scene — there may be more friction developing in the mammoth process.

Transition leaders promise that transition work will be "transparent" and "inclusive," but some public officials feel like they're being cut out of the process for political reasons — like Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, who backed a different county reorganization measure, Issue 5.

Perhaps Jones should attend one of the transition team's "public engagement forums," a fancy name for a staged town-hall meeting. One such meeting took place last Wednesday at Cleveland State University, but you likely weren't there. Roughly 120 citizens showed up to the event — almost 900 short of the supposed 1,000 citizen volunteers that transition leaders keep talking about. With Zanotti and McCafferty watching from the side, an eight-person public engagement panel took rhetorical comments from the audience.

It was a mostly civil affair, with advisors Randy McShepard and Robyn Minter Smyers doing most of the "engaging," i.e. answering questions and ensuring the concerned that their voices will be heard. Most committee members said nary a word, including labor leader Harriet Applegate, one of the key opponents to the new charter.

As citizens asked questions of the panel, political activist Eric Johnson took the microphone and wondered aloud at how much influence citizen volunteers will have on the process. "There's been this invisible hand that seemed to create these committees," said Johnson. "I want to know who's responsible for that group and how they came about the way of developing the task and goals and operation of how this is going." Advisors took notes but did not offer an answer.

A couple of suburban Republicans expressed dismay at the apparent lack of Republican representation among the transition chairs. In fact, a wealthy Republican donor is among one of the transition's most influential decision-makers. Little has been made of the political activism of Alexander "Sandy" Cutler, chairman and CEO of the Eaton Corporation (ranked 164 in 2009's Fortune 500 list) and former chairman of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. Cutler, according to a local business publication, helped organize the charter campaign and gave $10,000 of his own money to fund the Issue 6 cause (Eaton donated $50,000, making it — along with Parker-Hannifin Corp., which also gave $50,000 — Issue 6's biggest donor). Federal Election Commission records show Cutler is a regular donor to high-profile Republican candidates, including George W. Bush, John McCain, and Ohio Republicans Steve LaTourette and Rob Portman. Records also show that Cutler has also given tens of thousands of dollars to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the past two years.

Cutler and other members of the business community have made no secret of their desire to shape the region into a more pro-business environment. As a member of the seven-person transition executive committee, he has one of the largest roles in steering the process. Two other Eaton executives are also on the transition oversight team.

Business leaders are also expected to chip in about $500,000 to hire communications and management consultants. The transition group will consider five bids from communications firms this week. Zanotti says professional expertise is needed to "coordinate" messages between the various advisory committees. Critics are concerned that the real motivation is to control and spin the flow of information to the public. To this point, McCafferty and Zanotti have been responsive to media questions.

Zanotti complained about the recent scrutiny he's received during the transition process and says some in the media have unfairly painted him as a schemer. He says recent articles have given him "way too much credit" when it comes to the shaping of the transition group.

"The public has no trust in government right now," acknowledges Zanotti. "I think it's a fair process. I think it's the best organization we can possibly build in this time frame and to get the amount of work done that we need to get done."

Zanotti also wants to clear this up: He says he does not have his eye on the all-powerful county-executive seat — a theory that has bounced around the political echo chamber for some time. "I am not [running for county executive]," says Zanotti. "I'm categorically not. I've never changed my mind. I'm not running for county executive. Everything I'm doing now is as a private citizen, trying to help the process."

So are many of those who made it to last week's town hall. But some complained that they have yet to receive any marching orders.

With public distrust of government seemingly as high as it was when Issue 6 was passed, the high-profile appointees that comprise Cuyahoga County's transition government will continue to face skepticism from doubtful voters, reporters, politicians and county officials. The campaign for the new charter was a nasty political fight, and the smoke hasn't cleared. That fact that Issue 6's controversial campaign organization, New Cuyahoga Now, has morphed into a transition participant virtually assures it won't clear anytime soon.

The most pointed criticism comes from Commissioner Jones, who will lose his elected post. Jones accuses the Issue 6 cheerleaders of playing political games with the transition. Jones says he has had minimal input into the process and called a stated goal of the transition team — to cut spending by 15 percent and divert the $50 millions savings to economic development projects — a "silly assertion."

"To me, that's campaign rhetoric — it's not real talk," says Jones.

"For this transition process to work, county staffers have to be open to new ways of thinking and doing," he continues. "But those who are offering suggestions from the outside have to understand how precious little they know about the nuts and bolts of county government."

The policy position was announced even before transitions advisors met with sitting county officials to learn details of how the offices are run. The charter only gives the transition team the authority to provide for the transition of operations from one form of government to another. It does not give them authority to make policy recommendations.

Jones contends there was a disagreement between McCafferty — whom he appointed — and Zanotti over the plausibility and wisdom of promising to cut $50 million from the budget without severely impacting services. McCafferty downplayed this, saying Jones has not expressed any reservations directly to him and reiterating that he is not looking to cut county jobs to meet such a goal. Zanotti says Jones is "dead wrong."

"His designees reviewed the number, felt the number was realistic and felt it was a goal that is very achievable," says Zanotti. "He's absolutely wrong."

Jones still has a stake in this game: He says he'll make a decision on whether to run for county executive in April. He plans to stay involved in public policy and is passionate about the human-services and job-development programs he helped to create. He says he has a tough political road ahead of him.

"Unfortunately, this has been perpetuated through the Issue 6 campaign and by some members of the media: that every county official and county employee is a subhuman neanderthal who really doesn't know much or care much, [and is] collecting a paycheck and helping out their friends," says Jones. "Because the voters were turned off to county government because of corruption, they misread to large measure what this vote means. This vote doesn't mean that there are no exemplary county programs."

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