Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A county executive, or not?: the City Club debate

“A single county executive will provide us with leadership and direction that we so sorely need,” Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti said at today’s City Club forum about the opposing paths to county reform.

Zanotti has a plan: he helped draft a proposed charter for Cuyahoga County, on the November ballot, that would replace the three commissioners with a county executive and council and make several elected officials appointed. “To suggest there are checks and balances in the current system — they’re just not there,” he said. “The county is the only form of government with no separation between the executive and legislature.”

Harriet Applegate, the local AFL-CIO head, is against Zanotti’s idea. “It gives too much power to one person,” she said. The county council would be weak compared to the executive, she argued: “They, at best, could serve as an adviser to this very powerful executive who hires, fires, and decides rates of pay.”

Applegate’s running for a proposed charter commission that would draft a second proposal and put it before voters next year. But she won’t take a position on how to change the government, leaving Zanotti shadowboxing an invisible idea.

“We don’t have a proposal — We have a process,” Applegate said. Her slate promises to write a charter that will create “real, substantive change” and “facilitate economic development,” then put it before the voters in 2010. It’ll base its work on public input, while the proposal Zanotti backs was written by a small group, she argues.

“The worst time to come up with a new form of government is in the heat of a crisis,” Applegate said. “If you feel betrayed by your office holders, you don’t just throw out the entire system and pick up the first alternative that comes along.”

Rob Frost, county Republican chair, argued for action, not process. Cuyahoga County has seen failed efforts to create a charter in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1969, 1970, and 1980, he said, and none resulted in change.

Eric Brewer, who sounded like he didn’t want a charter at all, was the forum’s wild card. He debated in his usual style, throwing out a flurry of facts and figures faster than his opponents could respond. He, like Applegate, spent more time addressing the county corruption investigation than Zanotti or Frost did.

“As mayor of East Cleveland, a city that’s had 18 elected and appointed officials go to jail between 1995 and 2005, I think that we are well aware of what corruption does to a community,” Brewer says. Creating a county executive form of government is no guarantee against corruption, he argued, naming several counties nationwide with county executives and corruption scandals, including Summit County a decade ago.

Supporters of the county executive plan seemed to outnumber the charter commission supporters at the City Club — or, at least, they were louder. Applause broke out twice, once when Frost defended the county executive plan. “What we have here is a plan that calls for greater efficiency and a more accountable and transparent government,” he said. “I would say that the signatures of 80,000 people of this county to put this on the ballot speaks more loudly than the votes of two commissioners to put the alternative proposal on the ballot.”

The other big crowd reaction came when Joe Amschlinger, head of the Cuyahoga County Young Republicans, challenged Applegate’s assertion that the current government has checks and balances.

“The FBI is not listed in anywhere in the county charter,” Amschlinger said, “and far as I can see, they’re the only checks and balances we’ve seen in years!” The crowd laughed and clapped.

“One check and balance you have is three commissioners,” Applegate replied. “I don’t want to defend the status quo necessarily, but three people is a check and balance. I think it’s superior to one, under the two proposals, if you compare that. That’s a check and balance right there. Even some of the independence of the row officers — which, there’s lots of things to say for, and many more to say against — but they’re independent.”

By row officers, Applegate means the other elected officials: recorder, auditor, treasurer, sheriff, clerk of courts, et cetera. Her quote is somewhat confusing, but it gives us some sense of what we'll get if voters reject the charter proposed by Zanotti's group and elect Applegate's slate to a charter commission instead.

If you want a county executive and council, vote for the charter Zanotti’s group has put on the ballot.

If you like having the three commissioners in charge, but want some elected officials to become appointed, you might get that from the county commission process Applegate supports.