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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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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