Monday, January 5, 2009

Reform is dead

Oops, sorry. Less than two months ago, I predicted the movement to reform Cuyahoga County government would dominate Cleveland's headlines in 2009.

Actually, just before Christmas, the state legislature killed the idea. It took the Commission on Cuyahoga County Government Reform's proposal for a leaner, less costly government and threw it onto the shelf, where all such plans turn brittle yellow, then molder away. Someone's already pulled the plug on the commission's website (the lonely, barely Google-able, but here's another link to its proposal.

The legislature created the reform commission in June, so I naively figured it would let county residents vote on its plan. Guess not.

The state House backed the plan, but Republicans in the state Senate voted for a different proposal to replace the Cuyahoga County commissioners with an executive and nine-member council. Rather than write a compromise, the legislators let the idea die with the lame-duck session. Rep. Armond Budish, the new Speaker now that the Democrats control the House, said that in 2009, any reform ideas will have to apply to all 88 counties. That likely means reform will never happen -- it multiplies the number of vested interests motivated to stop it.

Killing reform was easy. Its champions aren't in positions of power. Once people started disagreeing about how far to go with it -- Louis Stokes vs. the rest of the commission, House Republicans vs. Senate Republicans -- doing nothing became the easiest option. Elected officials who benefit from the status quo only had to keep quiet for the idea to go away.

County treasurer Jim Rokakis, who supports reform, estimates the county government wastes $40 million to $60 million a year. The recorder's office, ripe for a $1 million budget cut, is just one example. But if Cuyahoga County taxpayers want change, the state legislature is not going to help. Voters will have to create a charter, like Summit County did years ago. It's not easy: it takes a petition drive and more than 45,000 signatures.

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