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.

County reform debate today at City Club

Pistols at 50 paces: The dueling reformers are taking their battle over how to change county government to a showdown at the City Club today. I'll post a report this afternoon.

Fighting for a county executive and council: Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti, part of the group that wrote the proposed charter on the November ballot, and county Republican chair Rob Frost.

Firing back against it: Harriet Applegate, local AFL-CIO head, and East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer. If we're lucky, Brewer will repeat his accusation that the county executive plan would leave us defenseless against "political thuggery."

I profiled Frost in 2007 ("Pork Roast") and Brewer in 2006 ("Ready To Rumble"). I got to question Applegate on WCPN last week -- and discovered that although she's running for charter commission, she is not taking a position on what county government should look like.

Dan Moulthrop of WCPN will referee the fight. No kidney punches, no rabbit punches...

Friday, August 21, 2009

More from WCPN: the dueling reforms

Yesterday on WCPN's Reporter's Roundtable, Dan Moulthrop, the Plain Dealer's John Funk, and I interviewed Harriet Applegate, the local AFL-CIO head, about the dueling county reform plans.

Applegate talked about why she's running for a seat on the proposed county charter commission and why she's against the other reform plan on November's ballot, for a county executive and council. Here's a link to the show -- Dan Moulthrop, the Plain Dealer's John Funk, and I start talking with Applegate at the 37:30 mark.

I asked Applegate what she thinks county government should look like. She didn't have a specific answer -- she just talked about the process she wants a charter commission to follow. I asked if she's in favor of keeping the three-member county commission, and she seemed to say she's inclined to, or that it would take a lot of convincing to get her to replace it.

Applegate also said her slate of commission candidates is going to publicly promise next week that they will put a substantive charter proposal before voters if elected. I'm guessing they're doing that because the Plain Dealer and supporters of the county executive plan keep calling the charter commission a "study" panel, implying that it could dither and postpone reform.

Actually, a charter commission is like a constitutional convention for a county. The Ohio Constitution says, "The commission shall frame a charter" and "shall, by vote of a majority," put in on the ballot in the next general election after the commission was elected. So if we vote for a charter commission this November, we should have a new charter proposal to vote on by Nov. 2010. My only question is, who forces the charter commissioners to make a decision if they can't agree?

The other topics on the Roundtable were last week's Cleveland sustainability summit (at the 3:07 mark), all the casino and slot machine proposals flying around Cleveland and Ohio (at 14:10), and Ohio's dwindling unemployment fund (at 25:45).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Russo subpoenas: round 2

On WCPN's Reporters' Roundtable today, Dan Moulthrop and I talked about the subpoenas Frank Russo's lawyer fired off at the petitioners who want the county auditor's books examined. Here's a link to the show -- we talk about Russo starting at the 31:40 mark.

Russo's lawyer, John Climaco, says the exam would disrupt the county auditor's office and the state auditor's annual review of its finances. Climaco says he'll try to require the petitioners to pay for any damages. He's sent a second subpoena to county GOP chair Rob Frost -- a story about it just went up on Climaco says he has a copy of an e-mail Frost used to recruit the other petitioners.

That brings up the question Moulthrop asked me on the air this morning. If Climaco can prove the petition is a Republican effort, so what? Even Cuyahoga County Republicans, that rare and reviled breed, have the right to petition the government and to join political parties. (I think that's Jeff Darcy's point in his editorial cartoon today.)

OK, so this law that Frost and the other petitioners are using is definitely old and strange. Any 20 people can force an examination of the county auditor or treasurer's books! The best evidence that it's an ancient law (almost as old as our county goverment structure itself)? The examiners get paid $3 a day!

On the other hand, the petitioners have this going for them: it's hard to call their effort frivolous when the office they want examined was raided by the FBI.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

WCPN tomorrow morning: Russo's latest move, Applegate on county reform

I'll be on 90.3 WCPN's Reporters' Roundtable tomorrow morning from 9:06 a.m. to 10 a.m.

We'll talk about this story: Frank Russo and his lawyer's counterattack against the 32 taxpayers who've petitioned for an exam of the auditor's books. They've been hit with subpoenas asking for their tax returns, appointment books and e-mails.

Also, Harriet Applegate, local head of the AFL-CIO and a candidate for county charter commission, will be on the show talking about the dueling county reform efforts. Here's her op-ed from Sunday saying why she's against the proposal for a county executive and council.

Dan Moulthrop will moderate, and Plain Dealer business writer John Funk and reporters from the Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Dispatch will also be on the show. Other topics include slot machines, casinos, and Cleveland's sustainability summit.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

MetroHealth scandal almost revealed 5 years ago

Sometimes you can tell how good a story is by the debates it sparks on the publication's op-ed and letters pages.

Like today, when the Plain Dealer spars with William Gaskill, chairman of the board of MetroHealth, the county hospital, on page A5.

Here's the story Gaskill's angry about: "Hospital was warned of problems with exec" -- a must-read Sunday article by James McCarty about two contractors who tried to prove that MetroHealth vice-president John Carroll was steering contracts five years ago.

This month, federal prosecutors filed six federal charges against Carroll, including bribery conspiracy. He's accused of taking "travel, gift cards, home improvements and home furnishings valued at approximately $678,000" from co-defendant Nilesh Patel, a vice-president at East West Construction Company. Carroll allegedly took free trips to France, Italy, the Netherlands, Italy Japan and Singapore thanks to Patel. East-West got $51 million in contracts from MetroHealth.

In 2004, Lou Joseph and Jeff Zellers of Brewer-Garrett Corp. "complained to anyone who would listen that Carroll was stacking the deck when putting out bids," McCarty reports. They warned the hospital's then-president, then-chairwoman, and top lawyer about Carroll, complained to the county prosecutor, then sued. A judge declared their allegations showed an "appearance of impropriety" and ordered a contract rebid -- but Carroll fixed the rebidding too, the story says. The hospital did not act until an IRS audit uncovered irregularities last year. Then it fired Carroll.

Gaskill complains that "we had no credible evidence of wrongdoing by Carroll" in 2004. He notes that Zellers himself says in the article, "There were always rumors... but nothing we could substantiate." But the PD buys the ink, so it gets the last word. Its editorial on the same page asks why no one at MetroHealth seems to have bothered to watch Carroll more closely after the lawsuit. Good question.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Patmon: more immigrants, more business retention, better schools

Tom Beres, political reporter for WKYC TV 3, plans to interview all five candidates for Cleveland mayor and post the interviews and stories from them on He leads off with Bill Patmon, the former city councilman.

Patmon tells Beres that Cleveland needs to fight population loss by attracting immigrants. He says Mayor Frank Jackson should have tried much harder to keep Eaton Corp. from leaving the city. He gives schools CEO Eugene Sanders a mixed review, saying the school system "does not work." Beres' interviews with other candidates should appear on soon.

Henry Gomez of the Plain Dealer also interviewed all five candidates for a package of stories that ran Sunday. Patmon, former chair of council's finance committee, criticized Jackson on a subject that's considered one of the mayor's strengths: City Hall's balanced budget. Patmon thinks Jackson should have saved some of a $29 million surplus for 2010 instead of using it all to balance the 2009 budget.

That gets Jackson worked up. He says the criticism shows a "lack of maturity" and suggests he would've had to lay off employees if he hadn't used the surplus. Doesn't that sound like layoffs might loom next year, if the economy and tax revenues don't roar back?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Retired judge Connally smacks George Forbes as "an out-of-touch, salty-mouthed curmudgeon"

George Forbes really went too far this time. The local NAACP president's claim that an elderly Euclid fawn-killer has been railroaded by racism drew angry responses from three black commentators in yesterday's Plain Dealer. Columnist Phillip Morris asks, "Has George Forbes lost his mind?" Radio host Jimmy Malone's letter to the editor says Euclid didn't deserve the cheap shot.

But the best of the three is former Cleveland judge C. Ellen Connally's op-ed piece. The judge proves herself a sharp-witted essayist, tracing Forbes' history of inflammatory one-liners from his city council days to today. Connally calls Forbes "fiery, foul-mouthed," and an "out-of-touch, salty-mouthed curmudgeon." She totally calls him out for overplaying "the race card" and acting as a "self-appointed spokesman for the black community," and says he's done damage to the local NAACP's reputation. She slyly reminds us that the state Supreme Court recently sanctioned Forbes.

As for the animal-cruelty charge against 75-year-old Dorothy Richardson, who beat the fawn to death for eating her flowers, Connally questions how Forbes found any racism in the charge -- unless "the deer had 'KKK' tattooed on its backside and ate flowers belonging only to black people."

In her semi-retirement, the esteemed former judge has become a frequent correspondent with the PD opinion page. Here she is criticizing the black ministers who opposed Cleveland's domestic partnership registry, smacking down Cleveland State Urban Studies prof Tom Bier for his op-ed complaint about a mental health facility moving to Euclid Avenue, asking why the PD considered it news that Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo hired defense lawyers, defending students who need more than four years to graduate, praising the president's international experiences, commenting on Sarah Palin's wardrobe shopping spree, and complaining that Continental Airlines starved her on a flight home from London.

Meanwhile, here's a history of the fawn scandal: the paper's original story about the charge, witness statements from neighbors (pdf), Richardson telling WKYC TV 3 she was defending herself against the fawn and reacting to her hate mail on Fox 8, and Morris' earlier column saying the outrage at Richardson was out of control.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Meanwhile, Cleveland votes in 5 weeks

Seems like all the political action's been at the county this year, thanks to the corruption investigation, Medical Mart, and dueling reform plans. But Cleveland's primary election is only 35 days away, and it's just starting to attract attention.

City voters will narrow down the mayor's race to two candidates on Sept. 8, and eight of the city's 19 wards will have city council primaries.

That day, we'll find out which challenger will survive to take on Frank Jackson in November, and the size of the Jackson and anti-Jackson vote totals. (I simply cannot imagine a late-breaking scandal so ruinous that it could knock the mayor out of finishing first or second.)

Here are the websites of the candidates running against Jackson: Bill Patmon, Laverne Jones Gore, Kimberly Brown, and Robert Kilo. My money is on Patmon to make it through the primary. His 12 years on city council give him some name recognition and the best credentials in the race. (He's also tweeting.)

For the city council races, the best source is Plain Dealer reporter Henry Gomez's Inside Cleveland City Hall blog. Though little of his reporting has made the paper's print edition, Gomez is working hard covering those eight primaries. Here's a complete set of links to his coverage so far. (And here's a ward map, if it helps you follow along. The wards with a primary are 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 14 and 18.)

The most intense race is in Ward 14, where councilmen Joe Santiago and Brian Cummins are running against each other thanks to redistricting, and a former councilman, Nelson Cintron, is trying to make a comeback. The near West Side ward includes Clark-Fulton, a neighborhood with a lot of Hispanic residents. Cummins hopes Santiago is weakened by the controversies during his term on council: he supported bars that people living nearby wanted shut down. Cintron, whom Santiago unseated in 2005, joined in the recall effort against his archrival two years ago.

The strangest race is in Ward 6, a weirdly gerrymandered East Side ward that includes the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood. Incumbent Mamie Mitchell is trying to fend off four challengers, a couple of whom have rap sheets. Her feistiest challenger is John Boyd, who murdered a man while robbing a gambling house in 1973, when he was 16. She defeated him in a special election last year. Another challenger, Alvin Thompson, was convicted of gross sexual imposition involving his ex-wife in 1999. He says he didn't do it, and showed Plain Dealer reporters a doctor's note suggesting he was impotent and thus incapable of the crime.

The most dramatic comeback attempt is in Glenville's Ward 8, where former state senator and city councilman Jeff Johnson is trying to return to politics 10 years after going to prison on an extortion conviction. He's one of three candidates challenging Shari Cloud, who was appointed to the council seat a few months ago, when Sabra Pierce Scott resigned. She'll have support from council president Martin Sweeney. Roldo Bartimole recently wrote about his memories of Johnson and suggested he could add "sparkle" and "vision" to city council.

Speaking of big personalities, Zack Reed is running in a new ward -- Ward 2 in the city's southeast -- trying to stay on council even though his old ward got sliced up in redistricting. Six others want the job too. It's an open seat, because former councilman Robert White was convicted of bribery, and the guy appointed to replace him, Nathaniel Wilkes, isn't running. Wilkes won't endorse Reed, which will help keep the race competitive.

Lots of people want to represent South Collinwood's Ward 10. Former state Rep. Eugene Miller, who was appointed when Roosevelt Coats resigned this year, faces six challengers. Longtime councilman Ken Johnson and council president Martin Sweeney each face two opponents, and one-term incumbent Phyllis Cleveland has three.