Saturday, October 31, 2009

Issue 6: Nine defenses against corruption

Some arguments against Issue 6 are better than others. Here's a bad one: We shouldn't change the county government's structure to add defenses against crooked politics, some say, because the real problem is not structure, but crooked people.

Marcia Fudge and Peter Lawson Jones are quoted to that effect in this week's Scene. "Systems aren't corrupt; people are corrupt," Fudge says.

The alt-weekly endorses a no vote on 6 by arguing, "It does nothing to prevent the kind of corruption that has plagued Cuyahoga County."

Wrong. No government is corruption-proof, but some governments are easier to corrupt than others. I count nine new safeguards against abuse of trust in Issue 6's proposed charter. None of them exist in the current government.

If the current county government scandal were happening under the proposed charter, Frank Russo and Jimmy Dimora would already be out of government, not stubbornly clinging to their jobs 15 months after the FBI raided their offices.

The Issue 6 charter says the county executive could fire the county fiscal officer or any department head (safeguard #1) and conduct internal investigations (safeguard #2). The county council could investigate and subpoena anyone in the government (#3). Dimora and Russo could arguably have been removed for failure to report an attempt to bribe them (safeguard #4, the most dramatic and novel part of the charter). The voters could have recalled them by now (#5) -- a power we don't have today.

Other provisions guard against crooked deals and machine politics. Internal audits (#6) could sniff out shady contracts. A bipartisan human resources commission would set uniform hiring standards that the executive and everyone else with hiring power would have to follow, reducing political patronage hires (#7).

Issue 6 critics' strongest argument, I think, is their fear that the county executive would be too powerful. A corrupt county executive could fire the sheriff or fiscal officer if they investigated him or her, and could conceivably use the office's internal investigation powers to intimidate. The executive would also choose the internal audit committee and the human resources commission. The wrong person in that job could do a lot of damage.

But that's where the county council comes in. It would control the executive's budget and hold committee meetings to scrutinize his or her actions (safeguard #8). It could shoot down the executive's requests for investigative subpoenas. It could investigate and subpoena the executive (#3 again).

The prosecutor could investigate the executive too -- with no conflict of interest (#9). Today, the prosecutor's civil division is the legal counsel for all county officials -- which can create legal conflicts when possible criminal activity arises inside county government. (Bill Mason's office sometimes refers potential cases to out-of-town prosecutors for just this reason.) The charter would create a separate law department to advise the executive and council -- removing the prosecutor's conflict.

The Cuyahoga County corruption scandal is the biggest reason we have two county reform plans on Tuesday's ballot, and the biggest reason voters care so much about them. Should we forget those proposals and focus on people, not structure? Forgive me for getting all poli-sci major on you for a minute, but the Constitution's framers knew better. They knew that men are no angels, especially not the ones who govern us -- that's why they created checks and balances and separation of powers. Do we really have enough of either in Cuyahoga County's government?

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