What the County Charter Got Wrong

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

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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."

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