County Government Reform is Likely to Happen in Stages Plain Dealer/NEOMG November 9, 2009

The revolution will arrive in waves.

In January 2011, a new Cuyahoga County Council will meet, its 11 members bucking commissioners’ habit of staid rubber-stamping to jostle and debate. The first Cuyahoga County executive will take over, and with 1.3 million people to serve, become the second most powerful leader in Ohio.

By June, a regional group will present a five-year plan to promote economic development.

Other more far-reaching changes are demanded in the governing charter that county voters approved Tuesday. Yet some of those changes could take years – even decades – and will require continual vigilance by voters, experts say.

Experts also say that charters have worked in other counties, including in neighboring Summit, and five other similar-size counties nationwide, by giving the government home-rule powers, rather than restricting it to the rights outlined by the state.

“You’ll see immediately some real changes in the way the county operates,” said attorney Eugene Kramer, who wrote the Cuyahoga charter. “But a great deal depends on who gets elected. . . . It won’t be enough to say, ‘I voted, that’s the end of it.’ People have to pay attention.”

Voters paid attention this fall to decipher two competing reform plans.

They rejected the county commissioners’ measure to create a panel that would craft a new form of government and, instead, voted 2 to 1 to enact a new charter, a sort of constitution for the county.

That document calls for 11 council members, each representing a geographic district, as well as an elected prosecutor, and an elected executive. The elected offices of auditor, clerk of courts, coroner, engineer, recorder, sheriff and treasurer will be abolished to make way for administrators appointed by the executive.

The reform makes the government more streamlined, since the executive will be responsible for virtually all services. But it also makes it a bit messier, since the council must approve spending.

County Council members will be beholden to their constituents and so, will likely fight for projects for their geographic districts. Members will probably debate more. They may have to read legislation more than once.

That system ensures checks and balances, said Joel Lieske, a political science professor at Cleveland State University.

“The county commissioner system was kind of speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil,” Lieske said. “The county has lacked leadership.”

In the first few months under the charter, council members are expected to tackle a code of ethics and campaign finance reform. They will also standardize hiring practices and eliminate unnecessary jobs. And by the end of the year, the council will pass its first annual budget.

Meanwhile, the county executive will run the day-to-day county operations. The executive will also work with the economic development commission (made up of representatives from Cleveland, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority, the Cuyahoga County Mayors and Managers Association, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the North Shore Federation of Labor and a nonprofit organization) to attract new business to the county.

Having one leader instead of three can make it easier to accomplish goals, said Stephen Brooks, the associate director of the Ray Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

“You have a single person who can get involved with the negotiations that need to be done and really push things through,” he said.

The leader can work hand in hand with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, as well as Summit County Executive Russell Pry. He or she can urge progress from a bully pulpit and encourage regionalism by offering financial incentives to municipalities that collaborate.

Some experts doubt any county structure can have much impact on economic development.

“It’s extremely wishful thinking,” said Joseph White, the director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University.

White said development depends much more on geography, the global marketplace and the education of the work force.

Regardless, White and others believe the success of the new government depends on who gets elected.

“Who you elect to that position now has become much more important than past leadership,” Brooks said. “The vote you make for the county executive is the vote that you’re making for the county.”

In Summit County, Pry has partnered with Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic to combine building departments and police operations, keep the Goodyear headquarters in Akron and create a $70 million BioInnovation Institute that involves regional hospitals, the University of Akron and the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine.

“There are synergies you can take advantage of in this system,” said Pry, who concentrates on attracting and keeping jobs, since without jobs, he has more problems with the rest of his budget.

Pry is the county’s fourth executive since its charter took hold in 1980.

But he is one of the first Summit executives to flex the charter’s muscle, using powers written in the document.

Still, because Summit County government has more elected officials than Cuyahoga, it’s hard to compare the counties, said Janice Patterson of the Cuyahoga Area League of Women Voters.

She listed five other counties – Palm Beach and Hillsborough (Tampa), Fla.; Allegheny, Pa. (Pittsburgh); Oakland, Mich. (Pontiac); and Hennepin, Minn. (Minneapolis) – which have populations within 100,000 residents of Cuyahoga’s.

All have charters, Patterson said. Which makes it fitting that Cuyahoga has one now too.

“There are sweeping changes that have to take place,” she said. “So to those who are paying attention, I think that will be pretty noticeable and pretty interesting.”


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