Wednesday, November 12, 2008

County reform: the plan

The Commission on Cuyahoga County Government Reform issued its proposal Friday. You might have missed the news, amid all the election coverage, but the reform plan is a big deal. It'll be at the center of our debate about our county government in the new year.

Here is the final report. It's 10 pages and worth reading.

The commission proposes to eliminate the elected jobs of auditor, recorder, treasurer, engineer, coroner, and clerk of courts. It'll combine the first three into a finance department with an appointed director. It'll keep the three-person county commission, but voters would choose a commission president who would be a quasi-executive: recommending budgets, appointing the county administrator and department directors, representing the county in major negotiations. The state legislature will decide whether to put the reform proposal up for a county-wide vote next year.

This plan is clearly a compromise between those who wanted a separate county executive and county council and those who didn't (Louis Stokes) because they worried minorities wouldn't get elected as often.

But here's an important detail: The report also points out that there are two ways to change the county government's structure: 1) the legislature puts a new government structure on the ballot, or 2) county residents themselves start a movement to create a county charter. A charter would give the county government new powers under Ohio's principle of home rule.

The reform commission itself expresses hope that Cuyahoga County citizens will go farther than the commission could, and organize and create a charter. And it says if we did, then the county's new powers would justify having a separate county executive and council.

Actually, a group is already pushing for a charter: the Citizens for Cuyahoga Success, which grew out of Forest City Enterprises co-chairman Sam Miller's March 2007 speech favoring county reform. Its website,, has only posted a volunteer sign-up sheet so far. So the best sources for info about its proposal are this article and this follow-up from Inside Business. (Inside Business is owned by the same company as Cleveland Magazine, Great Lakes Publishing. The articles' author, Lute Harmon, Sr., is chairman of the company as well as a member of Citizens for Cuyahoga Success.)

What happens if two reform proposals both go before voters next year? I don't think anyone has thought that far ahead yet -- we'll see.

Two other details from the reform commission's proposal are worth mentioning. It recommends creating a county law department, instead of having the county prosecutor serve as county legal counsel, which sometimes creates conflicts of interest. Also, it would create a human resources commission that would set uniform standards for hiring in all departments, which would cut down on patronage.

Here are some key quotes from the reform commission's report (bolds are mine):

- "From any perspective – efficiency, fairness, accountability, effectiveness – the structure of Cuyahoga County government is letting us down."

- "Eight elected administrative officials operate with virtual autonomy. In practice, they each run their own hiring operations and effectively set their own budgets. Three County Commissioners have far less budget and administrative control than good governance demands."

- "The diffusion of power also means duplication of effort, inefficiency and waste of taxpayer dollars. Nearly all of the elected administrative officers have staff who separately perform basic functions such as human resources, public outreach, information technology and financial management."

-The county also suffers from a "lack of a clearly identifiable leader."

-"Streamlining Cuyahoga County government would make it far more efficient by eliminating unnecessary elective offices and by giving leadership authority to the President of the Board of County Commissioners. ... Millions of dollars could be saved each year."

-"Our community needs the County to be a more effective leader on regional issues, especially economic issues. A Board of County Commissioners led by a 'strong President' would be a nimble and effective actor in this arena."

The reform commission also interviewed almost all the current elected county officials to get their opinions on reform. The interview notes are online here. Highlights:

-Most of the eight elected administrative officials were skeptical of the reform proposals, though some (such as Prosecutor Bill Mason) were more enthusiastic about reform than others.

-Treasurer Jim Rokakis was strongly in favor of reform. He believes it could lead to a leaner government, which he estimated could save $40 to $60 million a year. Right now, he says, the commissioners don't question what the other elected officials spend.

-County commissioners Peter Lawson Jones and Tim Hagan (link is broken, sorry) both testified before the reform panel and supported making most of the elected positions appointed. Hagan was skeptical of a county executive and council plan. (It looks like Jimmy Dimora is the only elected county official who didn't talk to the reform panel.)

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