Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rokakis and Ronayne on Issue 6

I recently asked Jim Rokakis and Chris Ronayne their opinions of Issue 6 -- whether we should replace Cuyahoga County's government with an executive and council.

Neither has been quoted much in the 5 vs. 6 debate, but I thought their opinions would interest a lot of voters. Thanks to his work on the foreclosure crisis and the county land bank, Rokakis (left) has emerged as the most innovative elected official in county government. He favored good-government reform before it was a trend in Cleveland: he's given his treasurer's office employees civil service protection. Ronayne (right) has also developed a reputation for new, inventive ideas, first as as former mayor Jane Campbell's chief of staff and chief planner, now as president of University Circle, Inc. Rokakis opposes Issue 6; Ronayne supports 6.

Rokakis says he attended some early meetings of the group that wrote the Issue 6 charter. "I was discouraged by the lack of inclusiveness," he says. "The first two meetings I was in on were all white men." It's a common argument from Issue 5 supporters, who think a charter commission is a more democratic way to reform government than a charter by initiative petition.

"I kept insisting two items be addressed that were critical: money and politics," Rokakis recalls. Campaign finance reform had to be part of a new county charter, he argued. "The county offices are the only offices that have no limits on contributions." It's perfectly legal for a single donor to give a county-wide candidate $25,000 -- or more. Also, "I railed about this issue of raising money from employees." (Under pressure from Issue 5 supporters, prosecutor Bill Mason recently promised to return up to $100,000 in contributions from his own staff.)

Rokakis argued that all county employees should be classified as non-political civil service professionals, prohibited from donating to their bosses' campaigns or volunteering for them. "If you want to reduce the number of employees in county government, hire the best employees possible and remove politics from their hiring," he argues.

The county treasurer's concerns didn't faze the Issue 6 charter writers. Only this fall, under pressure from the Issue 5 side, have they promised that a new government would regulate campaign finance.

"I also insisted you cannot have a large county council," Rokakis says. "It would become balkanized." He thought the proposed charter's 11 councilpeople elected by district were too many, and that some ought to be elected county-wide, so they could rise above geographic disputes.

Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti, a leader of the Issue 6 effort, argued otherwise, Rokakis says. "[Zanotti's response was,] we need black votes. We have to go to the black community and say, 'You’re going to have all this representation.'" (The county council boundaries were drawn to create four black-majority districts.)

Rokakis thinks Issue 6 is a recipe for new political conflicts. "Most of what [the county] does is fairly set in stone. People talk about making this the new economic development engine. The fact is, the county is a large social service agency. Are we going to start to politicize decisions about that?"

Chris Ronayne disagrees. The 11 council districts in Issue 6 "lend themselves to collaboration across city borders and ward boundaries," argues the former Cleveland and Cuyahoga County planner. "They’re drawn large enough that they can create cooperation."

A single county executive can offer a "one-stop shop for economic development," Ronayne argues. He also thinks a county with an assertive charter government can help create buying power for governments purchasing services, by bargaining for itself and smaller local governments.

Ronayne says county government badly needs the separation of powers Issue 6 would create. Right now, the three county commissioners are the executive and legislature -- and the public rarely sees their decision-making process. Their meetings are mostly a long string of unanimous votes.

"You need a check and balance," he says. In the Issue 6 charter, he says, "The check on the executive is council, to help support economic development and administer human services, and be a budget monitor that you need in a normal system of government -- which we haven’t had with the county."

Ronayne, a co-chair of the Issue 6 campaign, says he's liked the idea of a county executive and council for 13 years, ever since the day he was hired to be a county planner. As he sat at a meeting, waiting for the commissioners to approve his hiring, he listened to political science professor Kathleen Barber present her 1996 reform panel's plan for an executive and council. The commissioners shot it down.

"It’s well past time," Ronayne says. "What’s happened since then is, we've lost 100,000 jobs."

(To read my 2007 feature about Jim Rokakis and his personal connection to the foreclosure crisis, click here. To read Andy Netzel's 2008 Cleveland Magazine profile of Ronayne, click here.)

No comments: