Links to all the LWV and partners issue forum videos 2016-2019
PLAIN DEALER REPORT: A REGION UNITING
Read The Plain Dealer’s 2007 series on Northeast Ohio’s push towards a regional government
The Moral Implications of Regional Sprawl by Bishop Anthony Pilla 1996
Regional Cooperation in Northeast Ohio
How to get 59 Civic Entities to Play Together
Armond Budish, Cuyahoga County Executive
Eddy Kraus, Director of Regional Collaboration, Cuyahoga County
Moderator: Tom Beres, WKYC-TV
Case Western Reserve University’s Siegal Lifelong Learning,
City Club of Cleveland,
Cleveland Jewish News Foundation,
League of Women Voters-Greater Cleveland
Wednesday June 17, 2015
Held at the Siegal Facility in Beachwood, Ohio
ONEKAMA VILLAGE, Mich.—Michigan has 1,773 municipalities, 609 school districts, 1,071 fire departments and 608 police departments. Gov. Rick Snyder wants some of them to disappear.
The governor is taking steps to bring about the consolidation of municipal services, even whole municipalities, in order to cut budgets and eliminate redundant local bureaucracies. His blueprint, which relies on legal changes and financial incentives, calls for a “metropolitan model” of government that would combine resources across cities and their suburbs.
In doing so, Mr. Snyder, a Republican, is taking aim at that twig of American government so cherished by many citizens—the town hall. The long national tradition of hyperlocal government prevails in much of the Northeast and Midwest, with their crazy quilts of cities, towns, villages and townships.
“You do have to ask: ‘Boy, do we really need 1,800 units of government?'” says Mr. Snyder’s budget director, John Nixon. “Everybody likes their independence, and that’s nice to have. But if you’re not careful, it can cost you a lot more money.”
Around the country public officials are asking themselves similar questions. Plunging property-tax receipts and rising pension and health-care costs have pushed many municipalities to the brink of financial collapse. The idea is that local governments can operate with fewer workers and smaller budgets if they do things like combine fire departments, create regional waste authorities and fold towns and cities into counties.
But selling the notion in small communities like Onekama is no easy job. Public officials have floated a proposal to merge this village of 1,500 along Lake Michigan into the township that encircles it. Some residents worry that a leaner government risks becoming a less responsive one.
Snow plowing already has emerged as a potential sticking point. If the merger passes a vote later this year, Manistee County would take over snow removal, and Onekama’s quiet streets would be among the last sections cleared.
Bonnie Miller, a village resident for 43 years who emerged as an early opponent of the merger, doesn’t want anyone to mess with the current plowing schedule. “At five in the morning, you can hear the plow truck is already out,” she says.
Over the years, consolidation proposals haven’t fared well with voters. Of the 105 referendums on city-county mergers since 1902, only 27 have passed, the most recent in 2000, when Louisville, Ky., merged into Jefferson County, according to David Rusk, a Democratic ex-mayor of Albuquerque and a proponent of consolidation. Last year, voters vetoed a merger of Memphis, Tenn., with Shelby County. In March, Memphis voters approved a merger of the city and county school systems, over strong suburban opposition. The county board of education has sued to block the merger.
Proponents of consolidation come from both ends of the political spectrum. Some conservatives argue that having fewer layers and divisions of government is cost-efficient and improves the economic climate by streamlining regulation and taxation. Some liberals support eliminating local-government boundaries that they say have cemented economic and racial disparities between cities and surrounding towns.
Researchers, however, have raised questions about whether such consolidation actually delivers significant savings. Typically, they say, only a few administrative positions overlap between jurisdictions, and further savings can’t be realized without compromising service. Public-safety agencies, for example, need a certain staff level to ensure the response times that residents demand.
A 2004 study by Indiana University’s Center for Urban Policy and the Environment found that costs creep back in, partly because bigger pools of employees can negotiate for better wages, offsetting the savings of job cuts. Academic studies of Jacksonville, Fla.’s combination with Duval County, and Miami’s merger with Dade County found that costs actually rose post-merger as new bureaucracies emerged.
In a study of Wheeling, W.Va.’s proposed merger with surrounding Ohio County, Mr. Rusk, the ex-mayor of Albuquerque, estimated that the potential cost savings would be barely 2% of the combined budget, because the overlap of services wouldn’t be as extensive as expected.
Mr. Rusk says the benefits of consolidation don’t necessarily come from cost savings. Fragmentation retards economic growth, he says, “not so much because of waste and duplication of services as an inability to unify a region’s resources” in everything from business development to road repair.
Various state legislatures are moving to spur consolidation. New Jersey, which has 566 municipalities, recently made it easier for communities to pursue mergers, and several are contemplating it. In New York state, which has more than 1,547 overlapping local governments—a system Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo once called “a ramshackle mess”—the Senate passed a bill in 2009 that gave voters the power to consolidate local municipalities and services. In Indiana, which has 1,008 townships, a legislative panel this year unanimously backed offering financial incentives to local governments that seek efficiencies through consolidation.
Michigan’s laws make municipal mergers difficult. Minimum-staffing requirements and prevailing-wage laws protect public employees and make it hard to cut payroll costs. Thus far, only two mergers have occurred: The city and township of Battle Creek, and two cities and a village in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula.
Gov. Snyder has pushed legislators to dismantle those barriers. The Legislature earlier this year strengthened the state’s powers to take control of the finances of failing cities, empowering so-called emergency financial managers to void contracts, sidestep elected officials and dissolve municipalities.
While the governor can’t force consolidations, he is trying to coax financially troubled municipalities to pursue them. He is withholding about $200 million of funds for cities in need, making that aid contingent on evidence of consolidation of services such as fire departments and trash collections. His budget sets aside $5 million in transition aid for communities seeking mergers.
Similar incentives are being offered to school districts to share services such as busing, or to merge altogether. In addition, the governor has proposed a new policy that would in effect blur the existing school-district boundary lines.
“It is an evolutionary process, starting with service consolidation.” Gov. Snyder said in an interview.
The Detroit suburb of Hazel Park, in Oakland County, is considering merging its fire department with neighboring Ferndale’s. North of Hazel Park, the suburb of Pleasant Ridge is discussing sharing police and fire services with two of its neighbors.
“The economic reality has come home to roost,” said L. Brooks Patterson, county executive of Oakland County. “They are going to have to consolidate or find themselves in the cold grip of an emergency financial manager.”
Gov. Snyder plans to introduce legislation to ease city-county mergers and allow for the creation of metropolitan zones to coordinate services and economic-development efforts. His hope is for affluent suburbs to share resources with fiscally strapped cities. Such an effort is already under way for Grand Rapids and Kent County.
Today’s fragmented governments grew out of voter demands for home rule and tighter control over local resources such as emergency services and schools. Voters tend to protect those resources, even if it means paying more for them. “Local voters almost never approve voluntary mergers,” says Mr. Rusk.
Earlier this year, half a dozen struggling communities in Oakland County held votes on property-tax increases to avoid consolidation of services with neighboring towns or the county. All but one of the increases passed comfortably.
In Hazel Park, one of the county’s poorest communities, residents voted overwhelmingly for a five-year tax increase to avert deep cuts to the police and fire departments, whose costs, including retiree benefits, account for 64% of the city’s $13.7 million budget.
Larry Wallace, a 46-year-old father of six, stood up at a public meeting to endorse the higher tax. He said he moved to Hazel Park two decades ago after he was robbed in his house in Detroit and a gun was held to his five-year-old daughter’s head. He said he had waited eight hours for Detroit police, but they never showed. “I will pay whatever to live somewhere safe for me and my family,” he said.
In Onekama, two governments—the village’s and the township’s—operate out of single-story buildings half a block apart on Main Street. Each employs a clerk and a treasurer. Each has an elected board of trustees. The village has a president to run its affairs; the township, a supervisor.
Many residents like it that way. Township residents pay lower taxes in return for a mostly hands-off administration that controls public access to Portage Lake. Village residents pay higher taxes for services that include maintaining a park on the lake and the early-morning snow plowing.
Several years ago, the two governments came together over a shared interest: the health of the lake. Concerns about aging septic systems in lake-side cottages spurred the passage of a new septic ordinance for both areas.
The village and township then began cooperating on a plan to protect the lake. In 2009, both the village and township approved a special tax to help protect the watershed—a vote described by local officials as a turning point.
Next came a joint master plan, and late last year, Village President Bob Blackmore, a retired auto executive, and Township Supervisor David Meister, a farmer and muscle-car enthusiast, began discussing an outright merger. Their goal was to avoid duplication of services and to jointly seek resources.
Under the proposal they are considering, the village government would be dissolved and the township would take over. Village residents would see their tax bills shrink, and township residents would see them stay the same. A couple of part-time administrative jobs would be eliminated. State funds to facilitate the transition could sweeten the deal.
But some village residents worry the plan will somehow change the character of their community, that a township government will not value what the village does.
Ms. Miller, who runs a summer fruit stand in the village, initially called the proposed merger a “hostile takeover” by the township.
Some township residents also are wary. Jim Trout, a retiree from Grand Rapids who recently moved from the village to the township, says he fears a merger with the village, whose voters he says are more politically active, will bring more demands, and costs, for municipal services.
“If they demand amenities, they can go down and live in urbanland,” said Mr. Trout. “I chose to live here.”
Public meetings that began in February raised a host of questions, recalls Mr. Meister, the township supervisor: “What’s going to happen to their streets? Is the park system going to change? Will we have a new form of government? Who is going to lose their jobs?”
Mr. Meister is trying to work out a way for villagers to pay more to retain services such as early plowing.
Another public meeting is slated for Wednesday to include summer residents. Officials plan to address concerns raised at earlier meetings and to outline what the new government would look like. Residents will vote later this year.
“It will happen either now or later,” says Mr. Blackmore, the village president. “It is going to happen.”
Ms. Miller, who says she’s beginning to soften her opposition, doubts the merger would be the end of the consolidation process. She sees Onekama ultimately being swallowed up by the county. “You can’t stand in the way of progress forever,” she says. “But sometimes you do like to see the little Norman Rockwell image of a quaint village.”
Write to Kate Linebaugh at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, January 25, 2004
Plain Dealer Reporter
Corrections and clarifications: The following published correction appeared on January 29, 2004:Because of a reporter’s error, a story on Sunday’s Page One incorrectly ranked the population of Louisville, Ky. Upon merging with its home county last January, Louisville became America’s 16th most populous city.
A REGION DIVIDED / Is there a better way?
Welcome to the city of Metro Cleveland. We’re new, but we suspect you’ve heard of us.
We’re the largest city in Ohio, by far. With 1.3 million residents, we’re the sixth-largest city in America. Right back in the Top 10.
Our freshly consolidated city covers 459 square miles on the Lake Erie shore. Our economic development authority, enriched through regional cooperation, wields the power to borrow a whopping $500 million.
So, yes, America, we have a few plans.
How do you like us now?
Merging Cleveland and Cuyahoga County into a single super-city is only one example of “new regionalism” being discussed across the country. In fact, it illustrates one of the most aggressive and seldom-used strategies to revive a metropolitan area by eliminating duplicated services, sharing tax dollars across political boundaries and planning with a regional view.
At the other end of the spectrum stand places like present-day Cleveland, a tired city with rigid boundaries watching helplessly as its wealth and jobs drain away.
In between are dozens of regions where city and suburbs agreed to plan new industries, or began sharing taxes, or staked out “green lines” to slow sprawl and encourage investment in urban areas, cooperative strategies aimed at lifting the whole region.
Some dreams came true and others did not. Regional government does not solve every problem or achieve overnight success, experts caution. But the evidence suggests it allows cities like Cleveland to do something not dared here in a long time. It allows them to dream.
“Regional government would let Cleveland compete in the new economy,” said Bruce Katz, a specialist in metropolitan planning for the Brookings Institution.
“Overnight, we’d become a national player,” said Mark Rosentraub, dean of the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.
“These ideas are not crazy,” insists Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state senator and one of the nation’s best-known proponents of regional planning. “Regionalism is centrist. It’s happening. Ohio is one of the few industrialized states that has not done anything.”
Orfield is often credited with popularizing new regionalism through his 1997 book, “Metropolitics.” It details regional partnerships he fostered in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, strategies like tax sharing.
In 1969, the seven counties surrounding the Twin Cities began sharing taxes from new business and industry, pooling the money and giving it to the communities that needed it most.
Designed to revive the cities, the plan worked so well that Minneapolis now sends taxes to its suburbs.
(SEE CORRECTION NOTE) These days, a newer model of regionalism is drawing policy planners and mayors to northern Kentucky. Louisville merged with its home county last year to form the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government, becoming America’s 23rd-largest city as Cleveland slipped to 34th.
Much of the messy work of merging city and county departments remains, but Louisville Mayor Jerry E. Abramson said his community is already enjoying cost savings and something more: rising self-esteem.
Louisville residents had brooded as civic rivals Nashville and Indianapolis used regional cooperation to lure jobs, people and major-league sports teams. Fearful of being left forever behind, voters approved a dramatic merger that had been rejected twice before.
“I think people saw that those cities were moving ahead more quickly,” Abramson said. “We decided we would do better speaking with one voice for economic growth.”
History suggests such unity would not come easy to Northeast Ohio. Look at a detailed map of Ohio’s most populous county, Cuyahoga, and you’ll see a kaleidoscope of governments: one county, 38 cities, 19 villages, two townships, 33 school districts, and dozens of single-minded taxing authorities.
The idea of huddling them behind a single quarterback is not new. At least six times since 1917, voters rejected plans for regional government, spurning the most recent reform plan in 1980.
“You know why? People like small-town atmosphere,” said Faith Corrigan, a Willoughby historian who raised her family in Cleveland Heights. “It’s been said Cleveland is the largest collection of small towns in the world.”
Any effort at civic consensus in Northeast Ohio also means bridging a racial divide, which helped to defeat the last three reform efforts. Black civic leaders suspected a larger, whiter city would dilute their hard-won influence and political power. Those sentiments remain.
“Yes, we’re fearful of less representation,” said Sabra Pierce Scott, a Cleveland City councilwoman who represents the Glenville neighborhood, which is mostly black. “It’s taken us a long time to get here.”
Meanwhile, residents of wealthy suburbs may see little to gain by sharing taxes with Cleveland, let alone giving up the village council.
“I think it’s almost a fool’s dream to think you could even accomplish it,” said Medina County Commissioner Steve Hambley.
Yet opposition to regional government is softening. Recently, Urban League director Myron Robinson told his board members that regional cooperation could give black children access to better schools and should be discussed.
Mayors of older suburbs, facing their own budget woes, are questioning the wisdom of paying for services that might be efficiently shared, like fire protection and trash collection.
And Cleveland business leaders, many of whom live in the suburbs, are emerging as some of the strongest supporters of regional sharing and planning. They say a strong city is essential to the region’s prosperity and that Cleveland cannot rise alone.
For models of what might work, they look to any one of a dozen metropolitan areas that forged regional partnerships in recent decades; and to a few impassioned local believers.
“If I were God for a day,” CSU’s Rosentraub declares, he would simply merge the city and county bonding powers behind a planning agency with teeth. He would create a $500 million revolving development fund, big enough to launch the kinds of projects that change skylines.
That kind of cooperation, Rosentraub said, would also send a message across the land. We’re big. We’re regional. We’re working together.
To comment on regional government or this story:
ONLINE: Read more, including The Plain Dealer’s “A Region Divided,” on the Web. www.cleveland.com/region
It was Plato who first identified necessity as the mother of invention.
But if the Greek philosopher were to pop up in Cleveland these days, he just might conclude that necessity has another child: regionalism.
Not so long ago, regionalism was an orphan concept dismissed as — pick your poison — too vague, too idealistic or even too threatening to warrant serious discussion. Now, everyone’s talking about it. Consider:
The new mayor of Cleveland plans to hire a regional economic development director, who will be part deal maker, part visionary. He’s also cozying up to a group of suburban mayors and city managers who want to start a regional development fund and to replenish it by sharing tax revenue.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to find one of those suburban mayors who isn’t talking about some regional approach to everything from recreation to fire protection.
And the Cuyahoga County commissioners are quietly crafting a regional investment package that would address big capital needs, money for the arts and even brain drain.
For now, the commissioners and most of the mayors use region as a synonym for Cuyahoga County or a group of adjacent communities. But other conversations are exploding on an even bigger canvas.
Foundations from 15 counties are investing in a regional economic development initiative and want thousands of average folks to help plot Northeast Ohio’s future. Business organizations from Lorain to Youngstown created Team NEO to market the region and aid companies looking to move or expand here. Two-dozen local colleges and universities are co-
operating to sell students on this region as a great place to learn — and to live after graduation.
In part, these efforts reflect simple reality. Geographic regions are the defining units of commerce in the 21st century. To Adam Smith’s invisible hand, every community here — be it a big city like Cleveland or an exurban outpost like Burton — already feels connected.
“The marketplace sees the region and the marketplace is where we have to have impact,” says Joseph Roman, president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. “And to do that, we have to use every available resource.”
Which gets us back to necessity. Although many of our companies excel, and many of us enjoy an enviable quality of life, this region overall has not kept pace with economic growth elsewhere. The result is the half-century of stagnation that we’ve come to call Greater Cleveland’s “Quiet Crisis.” And it touches almost every aspect of life.
The cost of government services keeps rising faster than property values or tax revenue. Citizens want those services, but are too concerned about their own economic prospects to accept higher taxes. As the region fails to generate enough new wealth, foreclosures and blight creep into affluent suburbs. Talented young people look elsewhere for opportunities. Old racial and class lines harden at a time when openness and diversity are more prized than ever.
If you’re a mayor or other elected official, you have to find ways to cut costs without eroding services, so you start thinking about sharing some burdens with your neighbors. Business leaders look for lower taxes and less red tape to become more competitive and create more jobs. Leaders of minority or inner-city communities realize that, unless the economy grows, their constituents will never reach their potential.
Thus the newfound interest in regionalism — not as an end to itself, but as a tool to fix what ails us.
“In some respects, this region doesn’t have a choice but to try something new,” says John Powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. “Yes, it’s hard. Change is always hard. But keeping the status quo is harder.”
Powell’s very presence in the regionalism discussion reflects its new tone. He and two other nationally recognized African-American policy experts have been hired by the Presidents’ Council to examine what kinds of regional approaches have been tried elsewhere and what might work here, given Greater Cleveland’s history and culture. The council is comprised by leading black business owners who want to ensure that their community is not only at the table when regionalism is discussed, but ready to help set the agenda.
That’s significant, because until now most black leaders have viewed regionalism with skepticism, or even hostility. They would hear regionalism and figure it’s a code word for a government consolidation that would dilute black voting power and strip Cleveland of its assets. End of conversation.
Now, says the Presidents’ Council’s Lonzo Coleman, “It’s better for all of us to be at the table and have the right conversations.”
(It’s worth noting that many folks in outlying counties still hear regionalism and figure it’s a code word for siphoning their assets to Cleveland. But that’s another column).
Think of the change at City Hall in just five years: When Michael R. White was mayor of Cleveland, he dismissed regionalism talk by asking its proponents when they planned to pony up for the city’s public schools and public housing. Jane Campbell talked a more favorable game, but usually focused on what Cleveland needed from its neighbors.
Frank Jackson is the first mayor to speak in terms of partnership and mutual benefit — though he, too, is crystal clear that education needs to be seen as a regional responsibility. After all, how can this area compete if it relegates thousands of children every year to second-class schooling in a world where economic power and education go hand in glove?
Jackson remains vehemently against government consolidation, but so is almost everyone at this point. So why not look for areas of possible cooperation — shared services, purchasing, job attraction — rather than pick a huge fight that will lead nowhere?
When OfficeMax was deciding where to locate its merged corporate headquarters, Campbell and Shaker Heights Mayor Judy Rawson brought together 14 public and private entities and 22 funding sources to pitch Greater Cleveland. It still wasn’t enough, but it offered a glimpse of what has to happen in the future.
“Before, when somebody mentioned regionalism, it was, ‘How is my ox going to be gored with this new idea?’ ” says Rawson. “Now it’s, ‘Can we make the region stronger?’ And if so, ‘. . . Does it benefit my community?’ And the answer to those questions, increasingly, is yes.”
The threats started in May, soon after State Sen. Nina Turner publicly voiced support for Cuyahoga County reform.
Several operatives for Cleveland’s most powerful black Democrats – many of whom Turner had looked up to – telephoned the young black Democrat with this dire warning: They would ruin her if she didn’t reconsider, Turner said.
How dare she break ranks with black leaders, they admonished, according to Turner.
The Call & Post – a weekly newspaper aimed at the region’s black community – followed with an editorial against “white-led” reform. It labeled Turner the “lone black who is carrying the water for white folks.”
The battle to overhaul county government is ugly.
Political maneuvering, underhanded dealings and other shenanigans have fractured Cuyahoga County’s mighty Democratic Party, which for generations has controlled the county government’s $1.3 billion annual budget and 9,000 employees.
It has splintered along lines of race, organized labor and groups loyal to different party leaders. But the breaks aren’t clean. While many of the area’s older black leaders want to further study reform, others – particularly younger black professionals – have started lining up with Turner, who wants a county-executive form of government now.
The discord comes at a tough time for the party. A wide-ranging public-corruption investigation into county government threatens to upend the highest levels of its leadership, including County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.
Dimora, who hasn’t been charged, chaired the party for 15 years and wielded enormous power, in part because he held together competing factions at war now.
But Dimora has stepped aside. And several people have pleaded guilty to contract steering and bribery in what federal prosecutors have described as a kickback-funded political machine that exists to provide the high life to elected leaders and their supporters.
Now, voters in November must sort through competing ballot issues to reform county government and competing slates of candidates who want to control whatever change might come.
How did we get here?
In February, Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti slipped into a seat at the Hanna Deli on East 14th Street for his first meeting on county reform. Although he was sitting in the shadow of the PlayhouseSquare theaters, Zanotti could never have anticipated the drama about to unfold.
Zanotti – who chairs the Northeast Ohio Mayors and City Managers Association – is a lifelong Democrat but rarely active in the county party machine.
Some never trusted Zanotti because his brother, David, founded the Ohio Roundtable, a conservative think tank. Others, including Dimora, turned against Zanotti in 2008 after the mayor backed a Republican in the race for county commissioner.
Few politicos were surprised by Zanotti’s reform effort. He has worked on various government reform efforts since at least 2004.
Nevertheless, Zanotti knew he had to win over the party faithful – particularly black leaders – if county reform had a chance of happening. Zanotti said he purposely scheduled his first meeting with Arnold Pinkney, the shrewd, 78-year-old political operative who has turned out Cleveland’s black vote for decades.
Black voters in the county, historically, have opposed government reform because they fear it could steal power they fought generations to gain. Even now, Cuyahoga, which is about 30 percent black, has only two black nonjudicial countywide officeholders – Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones and Recorder Lillian Greene. And each was elected only after first being appointed.
Zanotti wanted Pinkney to help break through the fear. As Zanotti tells it, he told Pinkney that reform must move forward but that it couldn’t if the change was seen as racially divisive.
“I told him we needed equity for all. There’s no need for this to be racial,” Zanotti said.
He explained to Pinkney that he and some other suburban mayors were forming a group to come up with a plan. He asked Pinkney to act as a sounding board for the black community and as a catalyst to bring its leadership to the table.
When Zanotti left the deli, he was hopeful. He said Pinkney agreed to help the plan’s supporters make the needed inroads.
Pinkney, however, remembers the meeting differently. He said he never agreed to help bring black leaders into the process, and told Zanotti to reach out to officials in the black community, including Cleveland’s mayor.
From the start, Jackson refused to meet with Zanotti’s group. Jackson has long worried about how government reform – particularly regionalism – might affect the black community. About six years ago, when he was Cleveland City Council president, Jackson asked a group of CEOs from some of the largest black-owned businesses in the area to study how regionalism might affect blacks.
The group, called the Presidents” Council, came back in 2006 with a 303-page report that acknowledged the fear of change among blacks. But the report suggested black voters might embrace regionalism if it improved everything from health care and education to taxes and transportation.
This year, as Jackson declined to join reform discussions, he often brought up issues raised in the Presidents” Council document.
Essentially, Jackson believes reformers have put the cart before the horse. He wants them to first decide what they want to accomplish – an overhaul of health care, for example, since both the city and the county have facilities – and then design a government structure to attain the goal.
Instead, Jackson said, reformers decided to first streamline government, by consolidating power in a county executive.
“What I’m talking about is a systemic change,” Jackson said recently. “If you just consolidate power, all you’ll have is a more efficient way of doing the same thing over and over.”
Citing the same reason, Jackson in February also declined to meet with another group of reformers. County Prosecutor Bill Mason – a Democrat – and Ed Crawford – a Republican businessman – led this group.
Many political insiders were stunned by this pairing, and even that Mason was involved in reform at all.
The Parma native is an insider’s insider in the county Democratic Party. Why would he want to change a government he helped foster?
Mason has a simple answer – to save a dying region. Doubters suspect otherwise.
As the FBI snoops through the homes and offices of Cuyahoga County Democrats looking for corruption, the doubters say Mason may want to shed his party insider image and rebrand himself a reformer who crosses party lines.
Mason and Crawford met about eight years ago and became friends. They launched their movement around the same time as Zanotti by inviting a mix of local labor leaders, Democrats and wealthy Republican fund-raisers like insurance magnate Umberto Fedeli and medical equipment manufacturing tycoon Mal Mixon.
Mason, like Zanotti, recognized the importance of including black voices in the process and invited Pinkney and other black leaders.
As March began, it became clear black leadership wasn’t interested in either reform effort. And worse, many Democrats opposed to change scoffed at the reformers” ideas.
Fearing the competing efforts could stall reform, Mason and Zanotti joined forces in early April. The alliance surprised some Democrats who fretted reform was gaining momentum. Then organized labor, one of Mason’s most dependable allies, fired a warning shot.
Harriet Applegate – director of the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor – sent a memo to supporters, encouraging them to call both the state Democratic chairman and Gov. Ted Strickland to complain about Mason, who wanted Ohio’s secretary of state job.
The memo included a half-dozen points, including Mason involving Republicans in reform and the possible elimination of “elected offices in a county which is the largest and most solidly Democratic Party in Ohio.”
Applegate recently explained her memo: “Here is this guy who is supposed to be [labor’s] friend, and he has been talking to a Republican for months and not talking to me.”
Mason did talk to some labor leaders, but Applegate said she represents labor as an institution and should have been approached.
There were other feelings hurt in early April. After The Plain Dealer reported Zanotti’s disappointment over the lack of black leaders discussing reform, Recorder Greene complained to the newspaper about Zanotti: “You haven’t talked to me, so don’t represent that you have reached out to black leaders.”
Zanotti said that around this time, he met with Pinkney for a second and last time and again left convinced that Pinkney was reaching out to black leaders on the reformers” behalf.
Pinkney again said that Zanotti misunderstood. Some sort of reform is needed, Pinkney said, but he never agreed to help Zanotti. “I couldn’t participate in a plan put together by a small group of people that didn’t include African-Americans, Hispanics, the clergy,” Pinkney said recently.
Members of the reform group were worried. They had met for nearly two months without input from the black community. Several had even sidestepped Pinkney and invited Rep. Marcia Fudge and senior black leaders to join them. None had shown up.
Finally, they reached out to the younger generation and invited Nina Turner, who represents Ohio’s 25th Senate District and is a history professor at Cuyahoga Community College. Turner, viewed as a rising star in the party, joined in with new ideas.
As April passed, there was a sense that the reform movement had traction. With the Mason and Zanotti forces joined, the reformers had party insiders and outsiders, some Republicans with money to back a campaign and, more than anything, one voice and a single, evolving plan.
Then, a political grenade landed.
On May 4, Fudge called a news conference outside the county Administration Building.
She insinuated that the reformers had met in secret without inviting black leaders. “We want it to be transparent, inclusive, and we want all the stakeholders at the table,” Fudge said. Among those at her side were Jackson and Pinkney.
It was a troublesome moment for the reformers.
“I was shocked,” Zanotti said.
Fudge and Jackson – because of the jobs they hold – are considered the county’s main black leaders, and many black Democrats follow their lead.
The reformers again invited Fudge and Jackson. This time Fudge agreed to meet with the Mason-Zanotti group and bring others with her, including Greene and union leader Applegate.
Reform group members thought Fudge’s involvement was a needed breakthrough even though it has never been clear whether Fudge – who declined to comment for this story and others on reform – ever embraced the idea of changing government. Greene, a reluctant participant, said she and Fudge hoped to find common ground with the reformers.
The Mason-Zanotti group had intentionally left two parts of its proposed charter unfinished. Members said they knew the structure of government and a statement of principles about reform would be hotly debated, so they stalled on those points until more black leaders joined in.
By now it was May, and reformers not only had to hammer out the charter – the document laying out how a new government would work – but they also needed to gather more than 40,000 signatures of registered voters within two months to get reform on the November ballot.
Fudge chaired the first meeting she attended on May 18. After everyone introduced themselves, several said why county structure should be changed.
Greene was soon skeptical, particularly about any reform that could give voice to Republicans.
“As I listened to them expound on the subject, I asked, is this really about government reform or about political reform, because the structure of government should not be changed to give inroad to one party or another,” Greene wrote in a recent e-mail.
Fudge reiterated Jackson’s concern: The group needed to discuss underlying social issues like poverty and education and not just focus on structure.
The group divided in two – one to work on a statement of principles and the other on the structure of government. Both groups included black leaders.
For the principles, the group referred to the President’s Council report that Jackson had commissioned while council president.
Members zeroed in on economic development and equity.
“To ensure a sustainable future, county government must ensure that all communities and the full diversity of its people have mutual voice in the management and distribution of and equitable benefit from county resources,” part of the three pages of principles read.
The structure group debated which elected positions should be wiped away. Some, including Mason, wanted to maintain several elected offices. They argued that black voters might embrace reform if they had offices to run for.
Others wanted to erase them all, or keep only the prosecutor, an idea that prompted Greene – who would lose her job as recorder under that structure – to ask why Mason would retain his job.
Greene and Fudge also questioned the 11 proposed districts for a county council.
Reformers said the districts were designed so that four of them had a solid majority of black voters to assure that black leaders would be in county government.
Bob Dykes, a white Rocky River pollster, had drawn up the districts. In late May, after Fudge and Greene raised concerns, he sent his maps to Larry Brisker, a black Beachwood pollster, who “ballparked” the numbers and said they looked good.
“I talked to Greene and shared my opinions with her,” Brisker said recently. “She let me know those ballpark figures were not of interest to her. Not because they were ballpark, but because she didn’t seem interested in any information.”
Both reform sub-groups met several times. They came back together June 1 for a meeting that Fudge briefly chaired before excusing herself, saying she was needed in Washington, D.C. She said her schedule would probably prevent her from attending more meetings.
After Fudge left, the group went around the room and each person expressed his or her views on the final plan. When it was Greene’s turn, she said the plan would be bad for black people.
There were no guarantees any blacks would be elected, despite black majority districts. “Why would the black community go backward when never before in the more than 200-year history of the county have we had two countywide elected officials!” Greene recounted in an e-mail to The Plain Dealer, referring to herself and Peter Lawson Jones.
Greene also said recently she opposed reform because the structure was a “done deal prior to my becoming involved. The group wanted a sign-off on what they had already decided . . . not to continue debate.”
And finally, Greene said she told the reform group a story about an older black woman who had recently approached her. The woman asked Greene who she was and when Greene told her, the woman told Greene how proud she was of her being in office.
“That was the final piece that solidified my position on this “reform,” ” Greene said.
Greene left the meeting after she spoke. Several there that day said they were stunned and described Greene’s departure as angry and unexpected. That night, at least two members of the reform group – attorney Steve Kaufman and Turner – reached out to her, Greene said.
Greene said she declined when Kaufman asked her to come back to the group. Turner left a message asking if Greene was all right.
“I returned the call with a “what do you mean, am I all right?” ” Greene said. “I am just fine.”
Still, many in the group believed Fudge, Applegate and other newcomers were on board.
The next day, about 10 people who had been working on reform gathered at Parma Heights City Hall for a final marathon. They spent nine hours going over the charter line by line, hashing out final details.
When it was over, Applegate said she hadn’t expected to like the people in the Mason-Zanotti group and was surprised that she did, according to several in attendance.
On June 4, the union leader sent an e-mail to Zanotti, asking for his reaction to an attached news release she planned to send out the next day.
“The process ended up inclusive and great progress was made in arriving at consensus,” the release said. “The result is a proposal that addresses the concerns raised by critics over the years as well as the current need for better facilitation of economic development.”
Zanotti and others were thrilled. What could have fallen apart in bitter divisiveness appeared to be roaring forward with unity.
But then everything changed.
Applegate never issued the release.
“She did a complete 180 on us,” Zanotti said recently.
On June 10, local AFL-CIO leadership voted to oppose reform.
Applegate later called to explain, Zanotti said. “She basically said the unions were concerned about protecting their friends – Jimmy [Commissioner Dimora] and Frank [Auditor Russo] – and the other elected officials.”
Applegate said recently that it took some distance from the group to realize that the reform plan was wrong.
“We met people so involved, so committed, so passionate about their project that it was hard to say no to them,” she said.
Within days of Applegate’s change of heart, the Call & Post reported that Fudge also opposed changing the structure of county government.
That’s also about the time when the weekly paper ran the editorial saying that Nina Turner was “carrying water for white folks.” And the Cleveland NAACP passed a resolution opposing the plan.
It was a buzz kill for the reformers, and some started to wonder whether they could gather the needed signatures to put reform on the ballot.
If they were going to make it, they needed more money. By June 16, the group had raised about $20,000. It needed at least $100,000.
“Meaningful reform is needed if we are to compete in a rapidly changing world,” former Shaker Heights Mayor Judy Rawson wrote in an e-mail to community leaders, asking them to kick in $500 to $1,000. “The county and city, acting together, could do so much more to chart a strong, collaborative vision for our future. The time for reform is NOW.”
Within two weeks, the group had its money. Most, $100,000, came from the Greater Cleveland Partnership, a regional chamber of commerce.
Commissioner Jones, who opposes the Mason-Zanotti reform, conceded at the time that the business community’s support would help get reform onto the fall ballot. But Jones had a plan of his own.
On July 9, he announced that he and Commissioner Tim Hagan would put something on the ballot to compete with the Mason-Zanotti plan, which they considered rushed and parochial.
Unlike the Mason-Zanotti group, commissioners needn’t worry about gathering signatures. They have the authority to put issues on the ballot.
On July 10, the Mason-Zanotti group submitted nearly twice the number of signatures needed to the Board of Elections to make the ballot.
Six days later, Jones and Hagan voted their countermeasure on the ballot as well. Instead of putting forward a specific plan, the commissioners asked voters to create a 15-member charter review commission that would study reform – again.
More than a decade ago, a similar process was launched after a 1995 task force recommended wholesale restructuring of government. But commissioners at the time – including Hagan – refused to put the reform recommendation on the ballot. Hagan said there was no support for it.
Backers of the Mason-Zanotti group suspect the same thing will happen now if voters pass the Jones-Hagan plan. But Jones said that’s impossible because charter commission members would be elected. The Ohio Constitution requires that any proposal made by an elected panel gets on a ballot.
On Aug. 8, a first slate of 15 candidates running for the charter commission was announced. Applegate heads the group.
On Aug. 11, a second slate of candidates emerged, led by Tom Kelly, a Lakewood Democrat and radio host. Kelly’s group supports the Mason-Zanotti plan, but its members say they are running in case it is defeated.
It’s unclear what will happen if voters in November approve both the Mason-Zanotti reform and the Jones-Hagan study.
Regardless, the split in the party appears to be deepening. Even now, four months later, Turner declines to name who threatened her with an “anti-Nina campaign.”
“I don’t think that will help the situation,” said Turner, who is one of at least seven black co-chairs of the Mason-Zanotti reform push.
Only one is an elected official – Shaker Heights Councilman Earl Williams, a lawyer for the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. The rest are professionals, including April Miller Boise, the partner in charge of the Cleveland Thompson Hine law office.
Eddie Taylor, chairman of the Presidents” Council – the group that analyzed regionalism for Mayor Jackson a few years ago – hinted recently that his organization may take a stand on county reform.
“We don’t usually engage in political discourse, but if there is an opportunity to support economic development in a meaningful way . . . we might be compelled to support some notion that utilizes this reform plan for those purposes,” Taylor said.
Turner, meanwhile, said those who threatened her should know that she appreciates the struggles of those who came before her.
“I’m very much cognizant of that, but we are in the 21st century and we must find a different way to communicate,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist.”
Turner rejects arguments that the plan excludes blacks or was rushed. And if it is the FBI corruption probe that ultimately draws voter interest, so be it, she said.
“We have a region that is dying,” she said. “If this was the impetus that makes us come together to change the trajectory of the county, then by God, we have to do that.”
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:
Cuyahoga County reform: How we got the story
Shortly after Plain Dealer reporter Amanda Garrett began reporting on the politics of Cuyahoga County reform, it became clear that many of those involved in the process had shifted position over time.
She set about constructing a timeline that looked at the political evolution of the plan, and the opposition to it.
Much of the plan evolved in closed-door meetings. Garrett relied on recollections, notes and e-mails of more than two dozen supporters and opponents to re-create what happened.
Many of those not identified in the story spoke on condition that their names not be used. All events described are based on multiple sources.
Cuyahoga County reform issues on the November ballot
Cuyahoga County voters in November can choose between two reform issues, or vote for both:
Issue 6: This is what the group led by Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti and County Prosecutor William Mason came up with. It eliminates the three county commissioners and all nonjudicial elected offices except for the prosecutor and treasurer. Running the county would be an elected county executive and 11-member council. Structure would work much like a mayoral form of government. Supporters say a county executive will bring accountability to government and spur economic development.
Issue 5: Cuyahoga County Commissioners Peter Lawson Jones and Tim Hagan support an alternative to reform. It’s not a different plan but would create a 15-member commission to further study the idea and come up with a proposed charter. The campaign is led by a heavily Democratic, labor-leaning slate. There is a complication. A bipartisan, largely Republican group calling itself the Citizens Reform Association is running its own slate of candidates to sit on the charter commission, if voters create one. This group supports the Mason-Zanotti reform, but if voters don’t pass it, this slate of candidates wants to join in the debate over an alternative.
Harriet Applegate’s news release on Cuyahoga County reform plan that was never issued
The following is a news release on the Cuyahoga County reform plan that labor leader Harriet Applegate said she would put out on June 5. It was never issued:
The county reform proposal being released today represents good progress in the hammering out of a consensus document. Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the North Shore AFL-CIO, was invited by Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to join the ongoing conversation about reform and the working committee was very welcoming of new input. The process ended up inclusive and great progress was made in arriving at consensus. The result is a proposal that addresses the concerns raised by critics over the years as well as the current need for better facilitation of economic development.
“It is important to have the kind of reform that our county needs. Equally important are the issues of timing, coalitions and respect for where people are coming from,” she added. “That is why a united front of leaders is so important. All major sectors of the county, including the business community and key African-American leaders along with labor need to be supportive in order for this to pass. Passing such sweeping change will be challenging so it is critical that leaders work in tandem to educate their people about what is in this proposal and why it is needed,” she said.
Many feel that if you don’t like the way things are, you vote in people who will change things, but what this approach does not take into consideration is how much more county government could do. The argument to dramatically alter our system of government is fundamentally an economic one. “We need to increase opportunity and bring jobs to our county,” she added, “and one good way to facilitate that is to have policy, people and a plan in place to aggressively go out and seek jobs and investment. That’s what this proposal does.”