What the County Charter Got Wrong

The document that set the county's new course could use a little fine-tuning

It was the document penned to save Cuyahoga County — from corruption, from government waste, from its endless economic doldrums, and from a rotund county commissioner lounging in his backyard tiki hut in Bedford Heights, plotting his next trip to Vegas at some contractor's expense.

In July 2008, 200 FBI agents swarmed county offices, a raid that led to the indictment and eventual conviction of dozens of county officials and their buddies. By late that same year, whispers surfaced that an abrupt change in Cuyahoga's government would be needed to clear the accumulated stench.

Then suddenly in early 2009, a charter appeared that outlined a new form of county leadership. And with the full-throated support of the area's business leaders and relentless promotion by The Plain Dealer, it was off and running to its seemingly inexorable victory on the ballot that fall. Also aiding the cause were the continued revelations about nefarious backroom dealings, coupled with heated promises of a streamlined government that would clear the decks for economic growth and guard against future scandal.

Amid the frenzy to build something new, almost nobody paused to question where the charter came from: who wrote it, when and where it was penned, and who took part in its creation. Much of that is still unknown; if minutes from those meetings exist, they've never been released to the public.

We do know that, unlike the charter authored by Summit County in 1979 — the only other county run by charter anywhere in Ohio — there was no opportunity for community participation and no public meetings till the ink was dry. Rumors about what special interests might have shaped it have circulated since the day it appeared.

Former Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald was elected in November 2010 to be the county's first-ever executive. He opposed the charter election, in large part because of how it was created.

"I objected to the way it was written," he says. "I thought we needed a charter, and I thought we should have a county executive. But the deliberations for the charter itself were not public. It's your constitution and everything should be out in the open."

The key changes brought about by the charter revolve around replacement of the incumbent officials with a single county executive and an 11-person council. And considering the charter's secretive and contentious beginning — including a lawsuit filed by one county official who lost her job before her term was up — the transition to the new government and the first nine months of its operation have gone remarkably smoothly.

While the charter seems to outline a strong executive/weak council form of government, a more balanced brand of leadership has emerged. New guidelines have been put in place for hiring and awarding contracts aimed at eliminating the standard thanks-for-hiring-my-nephew model.

But there's also plenty in the charter that officeholders and observers alike aren't happy with, and they're looking forward to making changes.

"The framers of the charter did an excellent job, and the new charter is working very well for Cuyahoga County," says councilman Dale Miller, a West Side Democrat. "However, in any new undertaking of this kind, some issues will arise based on experience."

Miller maintains a wish list of 10 changes he'd like to see. And he's not the only one.

Dueling Lawmen

The most visible challenge to the charter thus far arose over the role of the newly created position of county law director. FitzGerald claimed that the new director would represent the city in civil matters. But the move was decried by Prosecutor Bill Mason, who had previously handled all the city's legal business.

In early April, their feud was referred to Attorney General Mike DeWine, who ruled in Mason's favor.

"I said I would abide by it, even if it didn't go our way," FitzGerald told The Plain Dealer at the time. "It didn't go our way, and I don't agree with it."

Almost everyone interviewed for this story agrees that the charter needs to clarify the issue, and most agree with FitzGerald that DeWine blew the call.

"The law department should be given primary authority to represent the executive and the council on civil matters," says Miller. "It should also be made clear that the council may obtain its own legal counsel under some circumstances."

FitzGerald calls it "one of the biggest unresolved questions of the charter."

"I'll be an interested observer," he says. "I don't want to prejudice the deliberative process by saying too much about it. I'm sure Bill Mason is going to end up being outspoken about it."

The Role of Council

As the charter is written, most of the county's hands-on power is bestowed on the executive, with council acting as a sort of advisory body. Quickly, that role seems to be shifting.

"What happened, in practice — and charter gives us authority to do it — is our authority as legislators has expanded," says Councilman David Greenspan, a Republican representing Cuyahoga's northwestern suburbs.

The charter defined the role of council vaguely as a part-time job, assigning a salary of $45,000 from which any perks — such as free parking — would be deducted. While many would be glad to have a full-time job at such a salary, proven talent would just as likely be reluctant to leave a better-paying job to take on this one.

Many among the council's inaugural roster stood to benefit from the job's seemingly limited demands. Council President C. Ellen Connally, a Democrat from Shaker Heights, is a retired judge. Cleveland Heights Democrat Julian Rogers gave up his role in an education nonprofit because it received county funding; he's since started a business, which allows him more flexibility.

But council has quickly assumed a much more aggressive role than many expected, working 40 hours a week or more. It's left many of them at odds over whether the job should be full- or part-time, and whether they are underpaid or overpaid.

"Some people want to raise the salary of council and make it full time; some want to lower it," says Sunny Simon, a Democrat who represents several suburbs on the county's eastern border. She also moonlights as a private-practice attorney.

"Right now we're being underpaid because we're working full time, but down the road we might not be."

FitzGerald says the executive/council balance has turned out to be effective in practice, even if it's not quite what the charter seemed to envision.

"The relationship between the executive and county council has been very productive and cooperative," he says. "I think they are playing an appropriate role. They are not steering the ship, but they are not just passengers. All of my directors are under orders to include council. They meet with council every week. It's been a pleasant surprise for everybody."

Taming the Boardsof Revision

One mandate of the charter that has added to council's burden is its oversight role in staffing the scandal-plagued boards of revision — the panels that review requests for property reassessments for taxation purposes. It's the only one of approximately 90 county boards and commissions that falls under council's purview.

"For every other board and commission, the county executive does the vetting through the HR department; they come up with some recommendations and send them to the council," says Rogers. "The board of revisions is the only board where council has direct appointing authority. So not only do we do the appointments, but the entire process: the interviews, everything. It was so labor-intensive for the council to do this. At the time, we had no staff. The boards of revision were so far behind in their cases, we really had to get boards up and running."

In addition, council upped the number of boards of revision from four to seven to tackle the backlog.

Further complicating matters: Whenever the county restocks the boards of revision's three-member panels, it must ensure that no more than two of those members hail from the same political party. In Democrat-saturated Cuyahoga County, it's a decree that smells of favoritism to some.

"I don't know what the charter creators were thinking," says Simon. "When we made the appointments, because of the makeup of the county, we had a problem finding non-Democrats. In some cases, we had to overlook more qualified candidates because of party affiliation.

"The process should not be political, but the charter creators made it a political issue. I think it should be the best-qualified people."

FitzGerald calls the stipulation "ridiculous," saying it's "a holdover from the state political system, which is partisan, and I don't think that's good."

He also interviewed candidates for the boards of revision; the charter dictates that one-third are appointed by the executive, two-thirds by council.

"The whole interview was: How much real-estate experience do you have? How much property evaluation experience? Have you ever done real-estate transfers?" he says. "At the end, I had to ask, by the way, what's your political party? That needs to be fixed."

Former Cleveland Law Director Subodh Chandra, now an attorney in private practice, had mixed feelings about the charter prior to its passage. He supports it now, but insists the panel stipulation amounts to "affirmative action for Republicans."

"There isn't or shouldn't be a Republican or Democratic method of appraising a property," he says. "The obvious reason for it was political patronage."

Development for Whom?

The new charter was sold as an economic engine, and among its innovative provisions was the creation of a nine-member economic development commission. Its membership is prescribed with appointments made by the executive, council, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the North Shore Federation of Labor, Cleveland's mayor, the Cuyahoga Mayors and Managers Association, and the Port Authority. The remaining two seats are filled by one person selected by the panel's other members and one chosen by area nonprofit and educational organizations designated by council.

If at first it appears inclusive, a case can be made to the contrary.

"It's really business-heavy," says Rogers. "Education, the arts, and community development corporations were all lumped into one nonprofit seat. The person elected to it was from the Presidents' Council, which is business. There's no other type of representation. It needs to be expanded or reconfigured to be a broader spectrum of what economic development really is. There needs to be an education seat, there needs to be an arts seat, there needs to be an everyday person."

Campaigning Gone Wild

Many have criticized the charter over a pair of omissions that appeared to help county power brokers select their own candidates for the office of executive: the lack of a residency requirement for the executive and the lack of campaign finance limits for anyone.

While the 11 council members are required to live in the county for two years prior to running, there is no such mandate for the county's top job. In 2010, Matt Dolan, a former state legislator from Geauga County, moved to Cuyahoga County only after deciding to run — settling just over its eastern border in tony Chagrin Falls. The move led some to question whether Dolan had a sufficient grasp of urban issues.

"The required time of residency in the county for the county executive and the county council should be the same," says Miller. "I would recommend that the candidate be a resident of Cuyahoga County no later than December 31 of the year prior to their election year."

Software company CEO Don Scipione became involved in the creation of the charter and later ran as an independent candidate for county executive. He agrees there should be a residency requirement for the job.

"I don't know how that slipped by me," he says. "If I had seen that, I wouldn't have supported that. Maybe the reason was we wanted to attract some great executive from who knows where, but I don't agree with that. We need someone local who knows the local issues."

Last year, six candidates vied for the county's top job — and two of them spent big money doing it, thanks to their family fortunes. Local businessman Ken Lanci poured hundreds of thousands into his own campaign. Matt Dolan, meanwhile, cashed $300,000 and $400,000 checks from his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan, and his uncle, Cablevision chairman Charles Dolan. Both senior Dolans have business interests in the county that at the very least could lead to the appearance of a conflict of interest. Even though neither candidate was successful, their spending set a precedent that could easily escalate, putting the job out of reach for strong but less-connected candidates.

Although it was not included on the original roster of transition committees formed after the passage of the charter to plan the new government, clean-elections activists advocated for — and got — an advisory committee on campaign-finance reform.

Scipione served on that committee, but he's noncommittal about whether such regulations should be added to the charter.

"I don't know if that belongs in the charter or in an ordinance," he says. "We came up with a number of proposals, but they could be implemented by ordinance."

Other members of the campaign-finance committee believe the charter itself should address the issue. After all, ordinances — enacted by a simple vote of council and approved by the executive — are relatively easy to create and just as easy to change. In that way, a future crew of corrupt officeholders could do away with limits and rules to allow themselves to benefit.

"Given what transpired [with the corruption scandals], it seemed stunning that there was zero about campaign finance when citizens were lacking trust," says Greg Coleridge, director of the Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee and a man with a great zeal for talk of clean elections.

"You pass campaign reform not just to create a reality, but to create an appearance that you have good government," he says. "You hope it's more than just an appearance — that it does prevent the flow of money that creates favoritism. To ignore something like this at the very time you're trying to establish this broken relationship between citizens and their elected representatives is an enormous missed opportunity.

"If you have no limits, it amounts to legalized bribery."

Subodh Chandra says the charter could have included an outline of various principles, including contribution limits and corporate contributions, without requiring great detail.

"If you don't address checks and balances at the beginning of the process," he says, "those on the inside won't address it."

One person who sees little need for revision to the charter is the man who wrote it: Eugene Kramer. Although his role was little noted during the campaign of 2010, and while his work may have been adopted by others for a variety of reasons of their own, Kramer is not some slick, sinister figure deliberately lurking in the background.

Kramer is a balding, slightly plump, somewhat disheveled lawyer. A 26-year veteran of the local juggernaut Squire Sanders & Dempsey, he now has his own office on Playhouse Square. Sitting in a Starbucks in the lobby of Key Tower, he speaks passionately about county reform, and he's forthcoming about his role in it. If that role was a secret, perhaps it's simply because nobody asked.

Kramer admits that he wrote what essentially became the Cuyahoga charter in mid-2008, after "drafting it in my mind and making notes for years," just as the shit of Cleveland's corruption was starting to hit the fan.

His charter sat on the back burner briefly when, he says, "The Plain Dealer decided [then-County Commissioner] Tim Hagan should be the face of county reform." Hagan urged then-Governor Ted Strickland to form a commission — headed by Gund Foundation Executive Director David Abbott — to make recommendations to the legislature. But the recommendations were ignored.

Kramer dusted off his charter and was ready when the advocates of county reform came calling on him.

It wasn't his first such dance. He had been responsible for an amendment to the Ohio Constitution in the 1970s that cleared the way for county charters to be placed on the ballot by initiative rather than by commission. He was involved in the Summit County charter passage and has advised other counties that are considering charters of their own.

"This is the most extensive, far-reaching reorganization of a government of this size anywhere in this country for a long, long time," says Kramer. "You don't find this happening very often on this kind of scale, with the magnitude of changes it brought about. You're not going to bring about this kind of change gradually."

Kramer makes it clear that the people who coalesced around the effort to put the charter in place — among them the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the corporations who provided the campaign muscle, Prosecutor Mason, and several suburban mayors — signed on to work that he had mostly already done.

"The government is as I envisioned it and intended it," he says proudly.

In fact, if Kramer does have a nit to pick with his own charter, it's the provision for a commission to review it in September 2012. That commission can come up with recommendations for changes to bring to voters. (The charter can also be amended by the county council or by citizen petitions).

"It's sooner than I think is necessary," he says. "The government is still being created in many respects."

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