From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
CUYAHOGA COUNTY GOVERNMENT. On 16 July 1810, the General Assembly of Ohio approved an act calling for the organization of the county of Cuyahoga. The state constitution had established that the general assembly would provide, by general law, for the government of all Ohio counties according to the same organization. Today, the center of county government in Ohio is a board of three commissioners, first provided for by statute in 1804. The commissioners serve as the county’s executive and legislative branches of government and conduct business in concert with 8 independently elected administrative officials. These officers, the auditor, clerk of courts, coroner, engineer, prosecuting attorney, recorder, treasurer, and sheriff, elected for 4-year terms, derive their power and receive their duties from the state. The Court of Common Pleas, the “backbone” of the state’s judicial system, assumes the primary responsibility, with the assistance of the prosecuting attorney, clerk of courts, sheriff, and coroner, for the administration of justice in the county.
Under Ohio law, Cuyahoga County government has always provided a middle level of governance between the State of Ohio and its citizens. With three elected county commissioners in charge, it was authorized to function as the state’s administrative arm. Ohio’s new constitution of 1851 expanded the number of independent elected county officers to carry out specific functions, and in 1857 the Ohio Supreme Court differentiated between counties and cities by designating the city as a municipal corporation created for the convenience of a given locality and the county as a quasi-municipal corporation created to administer the policy of the state.
Cuyahoga County has retained its original form of government; however, as the county grew, particularly in the period following World War I, this standard structure has been greatly modified to meet the needs of an increasingly urban area. Within a constant framework, each elected official has separate and distinct responsibilities, largely carried out by administrative, professional, and clerical staffs; however, the historical development of each of Cuyahoga County’s offices has been similar in many ways. All of the county’s elected officers have identifiable predecessors that served under English law or under the laws of the Northwest Territory. All of the offices, with the exception of the coroner and sheriff, were originally occupied by individuals appointed to the position, by either the state legislature or the courts, and only gradually did state law require that officeholders be elected by the people for terms that would vary in their duration during the 19th and 20th centuries. The offices of the sheriff and coroner were specifically provided for in the 1802 Ohio Constitution and made elective, originally for terms of 2 years. This structure remained fundamentally the same throughout most of the 19th century, as did the basic duties and responsibilities originally assigned to the offices. The activities of these major departments, however, gradually increased and broadened as the business of governing became more complex. The first real modifications in the basic structure of county government did not occur until the late 19th century, and by 1913 several new offices and agencies had been added. In the years that followed the growth of government was steady as the county, particularly through the action of the Board of Cuyahoga County Commissioners, responded to problems posed by a growing urban population and an increasingly complex industrial society. New agencies and institutions in the fields of health, human services, justice affairs, PUBLIC SAFETY, andTRANSPORTATION were created.
By 1913 the organization of the court system had been modified to include courts of appeal (1912) and insolvency (1896), as well as a juvenile court. TheCUYAHOGA COUNTY JUVENILE COURT, created by state legislation passed in 1902 represented the second such entity in the U.S. The provisions of the Ohio measure made it applicable to Cuyahoga County only, and the legislation was promoted and supported by local-interest groups who advocated the formation of a separate court, and thus distinction in treatment for the juvenile offender. The juvenile court was linked to a detention home for minors made possible by state legislation passed in 1908 granting the commissioners authority, with the advice and recommendation of a duly authorized judge, to establish an institution for delinquent, dependent, or neglected youth. The juvenile court also presided over the Mothers’ Pension program, created by state law in 1913, which allowed a stipend to women with children under the age of 16 who lacked traditional means of support.
The responsibilities of the probate court, originally established under the provisions of the Ohio Constitution of 1851, had also expanded to include, by 1913, the power to appoint four county residents to constitute a board of park commissioners known in Cuyahoga County as the County Park Commission. In 1913 the probate judge also received the power to appoint the county board of visitors, a body authorized by the Ohio general assembly in 1882 to keep apprised of the conditions and management of all charitable and correctional facilities supported in whole or in part by county or municipal taxation. By 1913 the Court of Common Pleas also had its authority expanded to include jurisdiction over a jury commission (1894) and the SOLDIERS’ & SAILORS’ RELIEF COMMISSION. The County Commissioners also had new departments to supervise, including divisions of blind relief and soldiers’ and sailors’ burial, as well as assuming the duties of a purchasing agent. Through the activities of two of these new agencies, the commissioners became involved in the business of providing assistance to the needy, a responsibility that would grow through the years. In 1884, for example, the general assembly empowered the commissioners to appoint three persons in each township of their county to provide for the burial of any honorably discharged soldier, sailor, or marine who died without the means to pay his funeral expenses. In 1913 the commissioners also assumed the duties of administering state aid to visually handicapped citizens through the operation of the blind relief division.
After 1913 county responsibilities continued to expand. By 1936 a number of new agencies, boards, and divisions had been integrated into the county system. The business of the Court of Common Pleas attained an increasing level of professionalization during the 1920s with the establishment of a criminal-record department to systematically compile individual crime records for ready reference; a probation department; and a psychiatric clinic to furnish the trial judge with a report on the mental condition of a prisoner, to assist him in determining whether hospitalization was preferable to punishment. The addition of a domestic-relations bureau to the Court of Common Pleas reflected a continuing trend toward specialization in legal matters. Although the bureau was organized in 1920, it was not until 1929 that the litigation pertaining to divorce and domestic-relations matters was actually segregated and given to one judge for disposition (see CUYAHOGA COUNTY DOMESTIC RELATIONS COURT).
By 1936 there were 13 divisions under the direct authority of the county commissioners. Two of these departments were created to alleviate the hardships brought to county residents by the Depression. The Cuyahoga County Relief Administration (CCRA) served as the agency for the disposition of public-relief funds in the county; while under the provisions of state legislation passed in 1933, the commissioners were authorized to administer funds for housing relief in the county. A third agency, the recreation division, was formed directly by the commissioners to see that funds were distributed to the best advantage on work relief projects related to recreation, including playground, MUSIC, and theatrical projects. These actions were not solely a temporary commitment made necessary by the conditions of the era. The activities of the CCRA were terminated in 1937 with the expiration of the Ohio State Emergency Relief Law; however, the county commissioners continued their responsibility in the area of public welfare by accepting control of the “Central Bureau” from the City of Cleveland that year. By this action, the new County Relief Bureau assumed the duty of providing for the transient, paupers, and the disabled, with an administrative staff to coordinate and organize its actions. The Relief Bureau remained part of the county structure until 1947, when the commissioners, by authority granted to them by state law, created the County Welfare Department. In the tradition of the CCRA and the County Relief Bureau, the new department assumed responsibility for the welfare services provided by the board. In 1952 the child welfare board, established in 1929 to care for neglected and dependent children, was transferred to the County Welfare Department, and in 1953 its name was changed to the Division of Child Welfare.
The county commissioners also became involved in the care of the elderly and chronically ill by establishing a county nursing home in 1938. This responsibility increased during the 1940s and 1950s as the county assumed duties formerly handled by the City of Cleveland. In 1942 the Sunny Acres tuberculosis sanitarium was deeded from the city to the county, and in 1953 Highland View Hospital for the chronically ill was opened as a county facility. In 1958 the county assumed control of Cleveland City Hospital which, along with Highland View Hospital, became the nucleus of the quasi-independentCUYAHOGA COUNTY HOSPITAL SYSTEM (CCHS). The postwar years witnessed the creation of additional agencies. In 1946 the commissioners took the first step toward the development of additional airport facilities, recognizing that with the development of airline travel as a major mode of private and commercial transportation, it was necessary for Cuyahoga County, as an important urban area, to supply adequate landing fields and air terminals. TheCUYAHOGA COUNTY AIRPORT on Richmond Rd. was officially opened and dedicated in 1950.
During the Cold War years, the county became actively involved in CIVIL DEFENSE IN GREATER CLEVELAND. In 1952 the commissioners empowered their board president to enter into agreements with the various municipalities to coordinate civil-defense activities. Additional postwar cooperation between the county and its surrounding municipalities was also made necessary by the high rate of urban development. In 1947 the county commissioners agreed to cooperate with area municipalities in the creation and maintenance of a Regional Planning Commission to work toward rational planning for local growth. Another legacy of the postwar period was the county’s involvement in coordinating housing for returning veterans. In 1946, under authority granted by the Ohio general assembly, the commissioners provided for the establishment of the Cuyahoga County Veterans Emergency Housing Project and appointed an administrator to take charge of the “acquisition, planning, construction, operations and maintenance” of such a project. The creation of these new offices and agencies imposed upon the board an increasing number of administrative duties. To assist them in carrying out their responsibilities, the commissioners were the first in the state to establish the position of the county administrative officer, in 1952. They assigned a variety of tasks to the county administrator, which included the daily supervision of the county’s offices, departments, and services and the responsibility of assisting the board in administering and enforcing its policies and resolutions. This move enabled the commissioners to deal more effectively with its growing responsibilities and exercise stronger fiscal planning and control in all areas. In the process of budgeting and appropriating available funds, the commissioners must decide the services, activities, facilities, and projects which comprise its program. The commissioners also have responsibility for the management of county facilities; and in the personnel area the commissioners appoint key departmental staff and line positions as well as board members who are responsible by state law for particular functions.
Following 1952, county structure continued to change as some obsolete departments were abolished and new ones were created to meet changing circumstances. In 1958 the county’s veterans’ housing program was terminated, as it no longer rendered a vital service. In 1975 the commissioners approved the establishment of an archival agency to give life to the county’s largely moribund records commission; to control the growing mountain of paperwork by offering records-management services to the various county offices and agencies; and to make the county’s documentary heritage available to the public. Earlier, the commissioners had attempted to improve their system of information gathering by forming a data-processing board in 1967. This board, consisting of the auditor, treasurer, and one of the commissioners, approved the acquisition of automatic data-processing equipment and is authorized to establish a centralized data-processing system for all county offices. In the area of justice services, the commissioners created a public defender’s commission in Nov. 1976 with the goal of its becoming the “principal source of representation . . . of those persons eligible for publicly provided counsel in criminal, juvenile, and probate proceedings.” By Mar. 1978, a public defender was hired, assisted initially by a staff of 16 attorneys.
Additional changes during the post-World War II period occurred when older agencies were reorganized, but retained their basic functions. The Welfare Department, established in 1948, was known as the CUYAHOGA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES by 1986. The services offered by the department had so increased that in 1991 the department was restructured and divided into four separate and autonomous departments, each with its own director and reporting to a Deputy County Administrator for Health and Human Services. Beginning in Jan. of 1992, Health and Human Services included the departments of Entitlement Services, Family and Children’s Services, Senior and Adult Programs, and Employment Services. The Child Support Enforcement Agency is also under the aegis of Health and Human Services. The civil defense activities of the 1950s, marked by the establishment of fallout shelters and the regular testing of air-raid sirens, were outdated by the 1980s. However, the county’s charge to preserve public safety during times of emergency continued, and in 1994 Emergency Management, a division under the Department of Community Services, developed and administered an emergency plan providing for the organization and coordination of the resources needed in a major emergency or disaster. Other divisions of the Department of Community Services include Sanitary Engineering, general aviation at the County Airport, the Emergency Medical Services (CECOMS) and the Regional Information System (CRIS).
By the 1980s, services to the chronically ill had been expanded and reorganized. The county merged the Highland View chronic hospital with Metropolitan General Hospital in 1979, and in June of that year the Highland View chronic and rehabilitation hospital on the campus of Metro General was formally dedicated. In 1994 the MetroHealth System included the Medical Center, a Center for rehabilitation, a Center for Skilled Nursing Care, the Clement Center for Family Care, the West Park Medical Bldg., and the Downtown Center. The county’s work with the elderly continued to expand to meet the needs of the growing segment of older people in the general population. The Department of Senior and Adult Programs, part of Health and Human Services, currently provides both protective and supportive services to consenting elderly and disabled adults to shield them from neglect, abuse, or exploitation. The County Nursing Home of the 1990s is a 177-bed facility that continues to provide specialized services to the elderly, including long term care and rehabilitation, and gives particular consideration to those individuals not able to pay for that care. The Advisory Council on Senior and Adult Services advises both the Director of Senior and Adult Services and the board of county commissioners. In 1968 the NORTHEAST OHIO AREAWIDE COORDINATING AGENCY was established, governed by the elected officials, including the three commissioners, from Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, and Medina counties. It is designated the Metropolitan Planning Agency, with responsibility for federally mandated long- and short-range transportation planning; and is also named the Area Clearinghouse for the review of federal aid applications that impact the region. By the 1990s NOACA’s other responsibilities included planning in the areas of transportation-related air quality and water quality as necessitated by federal law. The years after World War II also witnessed the development of several substantially autonomous local government agencies that, although not directly controlled by the electorate, developed out of a need for special services in the areas of health, transportation, education, and library facilities. By 1994 there were approx. 40 boards and commissions, either advisory or policy making in nature, whose membership included at least one individual appointed by the county commissioners. These included the Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, the CLEVELAND-CUYAHOGA COUNTY PORT AUTHORITY, the CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE Board of Trustees, the Cuyahoga County Community Mental Health Board, and the GREATER CLEVELAND REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY (RTA) Board of Trustees.
The growing complexity of Cuyahoga County’s governmental structure and the proliferation of the services it provides were a natural product of the overall growth of the area during the 20th century and reflected the need to provide uniform, coordinated services to meet the common needs that may formerly have been met by individual municipalities. This evolution of responsibility has been used by advocates of a regional governmental structure to illustrate the necessity of such a structure. However, by the early 1980s all formal efforts to achieve regional government had been defeated, and the expansion of county services to meet common area needs seemed destined to continue.
Judith G. Cetina
Cuyahoga County Archives