Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Issue 5 dilemma: You don't know what you'll get

I think Issue 5 supporters have made a big mistake, and I suspect they're going to pay for it at the polls next week. Their charter commission candidates, the "Real Reform Done Right" slate, won't say what kind of new government they want for Cuyahoga County.

I've gone to all three City Club debates about Issues 5 and 6 (see here and here), and I've talked to Peter Lawson Jones and interviewed slate members Harriet Applegate and Ron Johnson -- and still, I can only guess at what kind of government we'll likely end up with if the pro-5 side wins. They've been maddeningly vague.

Whatever your opinion about Issue 6, it has the advantage of clarity. You know what you're getting if it passes next Tuesday: a county executive and an 11-member council elected by district. You can read the 11,700-word proposed charter. (And I can satirically summarize it.)

In theory, the charter commission Issue 5 proposes is a perfectly respectable way to create a new government. It's like a constitutional convention for Cuyahoga County: We vote for 15 well-regarded citizens to write a charter for us, then vote yes or no on their proposal next year.

The problem is, Issue 5 was explicitly placed on the ballot as an alternative to Issue 6. So the Yes on 5, No on 6 supporters owe it to us to say not just what kind of government they're against, but what kind of government they're for.

Their slate should've run on a platform sketching out an outline of a government that they think would be better than both the current government and the Issue 6 charter. Then we would've had two new ideas to choose from, rather than a county executive form of government versus a foggy, uncertain promise of change.

That's why 6 supporters deride the charter commission as a "study group," and why a Plain Dealer editorial called "Real Reform Done Right" an Orwellian phrase. When they accuse the 5 side of trying to dilute or scuttle change, 5 supporters can't prove otherwise, because they can't answer this question: what do they mean by "real reform"?

After last week’s City Club debate between candidates from the two charter commission slates, I asked Ron Johnson of Real Reform Done Right how his slate wants to restructure the government.

“We’re not sure,” Johnson said. “We all have different ideas of what the structure should look like.” The slate wants a new charter to address ethics reform and economic development, he said, and create a structure that minimizes politics and includes checks and balances. “Is that a nine-member council and county executive? Or an 11-member council and an appointed county executive? We’re not sure yet.”

I asked Johnson if he supports the three-commissioner form of county government. “It isn't necessarily a bad format,” he said. But he did criticize the current system for its eight elected officials (auditor, treasurer, etc.) who run their own departments with “complete autonomy.” He seems to want to eliminate some elected offices. He says the slate wants to consolidate some of their functions, such as the elected officials’ separate human resources departments.

In an interview yesterday, Peter Lawson Jones offered a few clues about where reform might go if Issue 5 passes. (Jones voted to put 5 on the ballot and helped assemble the Real Reform Done Right slate, so his views would probably be influential.)

“I think some elements in Issue 6 should find way into a charter,” Jones told me. He says he agrees with eliminating some elected offices, agrees with giving voters the right to recall county officials, and agrees the county should have a five-year strategic economic plan.

I asked Jones to respond to the criticism that no one knows what sort of new government the charter commission will produce.

“But here’s the good news,” Jones said: A charter created under 5 will be “the result of numerous community-wide meetings, conducted in public. And in November 2010, voters will have their say.” (That is, we’d have another charter proposal to vote on a year from now.)

The pro-5 side is all about process. They say a charter commission with open meetings is a better way to create a new government than the initiative petition that put 6 on the ballot. I’m sure they would say that running for charter commission with concrete ideas on how to restructure the government would be like saying they won’t listen to the public at all those meetings.

But the Citizens Reform Association candidates I talked to handle that dilemma just fine. They state their ideas about which government structures work best, while leaving room to be persuaded about details.

“If elected, it only makes sense to start with the existing framework of the [Issue 6] charter proposal,” Tom Kelly told me after last week’s debate. “A great deal of it would appear in any charter.” He adds he wouldn’t make up his mind completely “until every citizen has their say." As for the slate as a whole, “Most of our candidates do support 6,” Kelly says. “They see 6 as good and necessary start that cannot be delayed.”

“I don’t believe the current structure is best for Cuyahoga County,” charter commission candidate Angela Thi Bennett told me. “However, I’m a little reluctant to say what I believe is the exact ideal structure. I’m in favor of a more balanced structure, such as an executive-council form of government. But if elected to the charter review commission, I would look at successful models around [the country] and also at the same time look at the mechanics of our own county government, and from that make a recommendation.”

So what's a voter to do? Read the Issue 6 charter. (Or, at least, the pro-6 side's two-page summary.)

If you like it, vote Yes on 6 and No on 5 -- and, just in case 5 passes anyway, vote for the charter commission candidates on the Citizens Reform Association list.

If you don't like 6, but you want reform, vote No on 6, Yes on 5 -- then split your vote between the two slates. If the two sides have to write a charter together, the Citizens Reform candidates, who want to go farther with reform, will push the vaguer candidates from Real Reform Done Right to propose major change.


Adam Harvey said...

I brought up some of the same points in my post at BlackheartCleveland two weeks ago.

Adam Harvey said...

Hmm. Link got stripped: