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?

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.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Patmon challenges Jackson at City Club

Today was Bill Patmon’s one big chance. For an hour, his lack of money, ads, and campaign staff didn’t matter. At the City Club debate, he challenged Mayor Frank Jackson as an equal. Criticizing Jackson's record and quiet persona, Patmon argued that Cleveland can only succeed with a more forceful mayor.

"I ran because there is a decade of decline going on in this city," Patmon said, noting that Jackson has been mayor or city council president for most of that time. "During that decade, we've lost hundreds of jobs, 22,000 students have left the Cleveland Municipal School District, and our neighborhoods has become ground zero for foreclosure." Only one U.S. city has lost population faster than Cleveland, he said: "That's New Orleans. And I haven't seen a tsunami or hurricane or anything else blow through Cleveland."

Patmon charged Jackson hadn't fulfilled the vision he articulated when he first ran for mayor. "I remember 2005. There was someone who said, 'Expect great things.' I'm still waiting. There was somebody who said, 'Make the city a city of choice.' We're losing 6,000 [residents] a year."

"You should expect great things," Jackson replied. "And you know what? There's no promises I haven't made -- just check my 2005 campaign -- that I have not either fulfilled, or worked on and made substantial progress on.

"There is no distinction between campaigning and governing," Jackson added, then jabbed at Patmon's political ambition: "Some of us like the game, and I do the work."

The mayor, calm as ever, reiterated the themes that gave him a runaway lead in September's primary: a balanced budget with no layoffs and increased services in his four years as mayor, 3,600 vacant buildings demolished, overseas travels to bring business to town, support for the Medical Mart and the new port.

"If you look at Cleveland, and compare us to other urban centers, I don't think we're that bad off," the mayor said. "I really don’t."

Patmon dented Jackson's incumbent's armor on the issue of the Cleveland public schools, citing their low graduation rate and saying he would replace Cleveland schools CEO Eugene Sanders: "If the superintendent can't do the job, he should find another job."

The challenger used the Monday assaults against two Cleveland School of the Arts students against Sanders and Jackson: "Our most talented children can't walk down the streets of Glenville, can't walk down the street with an iPod, because of a poor decision on where to locate them." A CSA student in the audience seconded Patmon's complaint during the Q&A, telling the candidates he was afraid to go to school. Patmon said he hoped CSA will be moved from its temporary location near E. 107th and Superior.

Jackson told the student the police are now on top of the problem. Prompted by moderator Dan Moulthrop, Jackson said the school won't be moved. "Regardless of where children go to school, they have a right to be safe in school and out," he said.

The mayor said he still has confidence in Sanders. "Even though graduation is low, which is unacceptable, the same report card said there was value added" -- which means that Cleveland students outperformed the state's expectations. Between successes with magnet schools, conversations about bringing well-performing charter schools into the school system, and a pending report about how to "right-size" the district (close schools because of declining enrollment), Jackson said, "I think Dr. Sanders has done a very good job positioning us going forward, and 2010 will be the proof."

Patmon offered some new economic development ideas: creating a series of business incubators and a business center to make it easier for companies to interact with City Hall. He wants to use the city's public utilities, which spend almost a half-billion dollars a year, to stimulate a greener energy economy. Federal stimulus money could bring solar energy facilities to town, and the schools should teach eco-friendly LEED certification, he said to applause.

But the challenger's assertion that he would have tried to buy National City when it faltered and made it a city-owned bank (using federal bank bailout money, I think) drew no response from the crowd. When he said he would triple city spending on economic development to $4 million a year, Moulthrop cut him off.

"Where would you cut?" the moderator asked.

Patmon gave the eternal response of all political challengers. "There's enough waste, you don't have to cut anything," he said. "You also have to grow the pie."

That gave Jackson an opening. "Can I respond? First of all, I do not waste anything," the mayor asserted. He made the case for himself as a financial steward, saying he talked weekly with a group called Operation Efficiency, which has spent his first term looking for cost savings in City Hall. Now, with the budget still tightening, another consultant is digging deeper, he said. Jackson's answer partially blunted Patmon's prediction that big holes will appear in the city budget in 2010.

The debate ended with Jackson and Patmon pitching themselves as optimists who refused to accept Cleveland's decline. Moulthrop asked them about a recent think tank report that says Cleveland should accept its shrinking population as inevitable and focus its resources on certain vital neighborhoods.

"I absolutely disagree, categorically, with every fiber in my body," Patmon said. "If other cities can grow themselves, what's wrong with us?"

"We should not be dealing with a shrinking city," Jackson said. "I come from a neighborhood, if you we were to follow that pattern, it would never exist. We turned that neighborhood around. And there are good people there."

Patmon suggested Cleveland needs a stronger mayor. "The difference between good cities and great cities is leadership," he said, then added that leadership is also "the difference between good cities and failed cities."

Jackson's closing statement rose to a peculiar crescendo: a play on the phrase "It is what it is," which Patmon and others attack him for saying. "No layoffs, no reduction in service! It is what it is!" the mayor said. His supporters cheered. Councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott shook with excitement, almost dancing in her seat, then high-fived the woman next to her -- a surprising amount of enthusiasm for a steady performance from a soft-spoken, workmanlike mayor.

If you'd like to watch the debate, the City Club is posting it on YouTube.

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.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mansfield Frazier's "Carr Talk"

I've often linked to Mansfield Frazier's political writing. Now, I'm happy to say he's making his debut in My Town, Cleveland Magazine's first-person essay section.

Our November My Town, "Carr Talk," is Frazier's memoir about Charlie Carr, city councilman from 1945 to 1975. Carr (pictured, left) helped make Cleveland the birthplace of the black political rights movement, paving the way for the historic 1967 election of Carl Stokes (right) as mayor.

Frazier's an interesting writer, and sometimes a political activist too. Yesterday I got an e-mail from him asking why the Congress of Racial Equality and the Ohio Black Legislative Caucus are teaming up with a payday lender for this financial seminar on Saturday.

"If CheckSmart is so concerned with folks' financial well-being, then why are they charging such exorbitant interest rates?" Frazier writes. "I plan to attend the 'seminar' and ask them this question in person." That should be an interesting meeting.

Update, 10/29: Frazier takes up the subject in his Cool Cleveland column this week, subtly titled, "Ohio Black Legislative Black Caucus: A Den of Prostitutes?"

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

5, 6, & me: on WCPN tomorrow

I'll be on 90.3 WCPN's Reporters' Roundtable tomorrow morning, talking about Issues 5 and 6, the dueling county reform efforts. I'll be talking with host Dan Moulthrop, Dan Bobkoff of Ideastream, and Laura Johnston of the Plain Dealer from 9:06 to 9:23 a.m. and 9:33 to 9:50 a.m.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Issue 6 charter (our 500-word version)

Have you read the Issue 6 charter? No?

We sympathize. Although the ballot proposal, written by some Democratic politicians and Republican businessmen, would give Cuyahoga County a brand-new government, it’s 28 pages long, and it reads kind of stiff. So we figured it needed an editor and a ghost writer. We've cut its 11,700 words to an easily understandable 500, with our improvements in red.



We, the people of Cuyahoga County, Ohio (wow! just like the Constitution!), desire a county government that provides for the separation of administrative and legislative powers, instead of three guys deciding everything in closed meetings, and for a more representative and accountable form of governance that will notice if someone allegedly steals $1.2 million in cash. We, the people, adopt this Charter of Cuyahoga County.


The County Executive shall be the chief executive officer of the County, like a mayor, with the power to appoint, suspend, discipline and remove all County personnel, propose budgets and veto anything the county council passes, which will either give us a better government or improve efficiency by replacing several political machines with one huge, all-powerful one.


The initial salary of the County Executive shall be $175,000 per year, or $30,000 more than the governor, because obviously, only losers would want this job if it paid $110K.


(1) Initial Districts. The eleven districts from which the members of the Council shall be elected at the November 2, 2010 general election are gerrymandered to elect four white Democrats, four black Democrats, and three Republicans. Everybody happy?


(12) To establish by ordinance a code of ethics, which shall guide and inform County officers and employees in a manner that will avoid conflicts of interest, self-dealing, casino chips, really good deals on home improvements, and other violations of the public trust.


(3) Qualifications. The Fiscal Officer shall be a certified public accountant and shall have had at least five years’ experience in the management of financial matters of political subdivisions, instead of being Frank Russo.


The Human Resource Commission shall be responsible for administering an efficient and economical system for the employment of persons in the public service of the County according to merit and fitness. Employment according to campaign contributions, clambake ticket sales, limo rides to Caesar's Windsor and cash bribes will be phased out over a 12-month period.


A County elected official shall forfeit that office if the officer knowingly violates any express prohibition of this Charter, including Section 12.04 hereof;


Any elected or appointed County officer who receives or who has specific and personal knowledge of any offer by any person of anything of value to be given to a County officer or employee for the purpose of influencing such officer or employee in the performance of such officer’s or employee’s official duties shall promptly report the matter or lose their job, whether they take the bait or not. Pretty badass, huh?


Officials elected to terms ending in 2012 go home two years early.

Cuyahoga League of Women Voters: Issue 6 "greatly reduces patronage, duplication and waste"

In all the coverage of Issues 5 and 6, I haven't seen the League of Women Voters, Cuyahoga Area quoted much. The good-government group has wanted a county executive government for Cuyahoga County since 1979. It helped circulate petitions to get Issue 6 on the ballot and is now promoting the proposed county charter at public forums. (The last three forums are this week in Westlake, Beachwood and Fairview Park.)

The group issued its endorsement last month, but I just read it recently. I'm posting it here because it makes some arguments I haven't heard elsewhere. Its website also links to more analysis: a summary of the charter, a list of checks and balances in it, and a set of 20 arguments for the charter and responses to common arguments from the anti-6 campaign.

One small update: 14 of the 29 charter commission candidates have the county commissioners' support. (There were 15 on that slate, but one dropped out.)

Also: The Cuyahoga Area LWV is one of three League of Women Voters chapters in town. It serves most Cuyahoga County suburbs. A separate Cleveland chapter seems to be neutral on 6, while the Shaker Heights chapter is pro-6.

NOVEMBER 3, 2009 BALLOT QUESTION 6: "Shall a county charter be adopted, providing for an elected county executive, an elected county prosecutor, eleven county council members elected by district, and all other officers appointed by the county executive whose appointments are subject to the confirmation by council and who shall serve at the pleasure of the county executive?"

The League of Women Voters recommends: VOTE YES! Here's why:

  1. Separation of Legislative (policy-making) from Executive (administrative) powers permits numerous effective checks and balances to hinder or prevent overreaching by a single strong County leader, while providing Ohio's largest county with executive focus and visible, accountable leadership.
  2. A Council of 11 will represent the county's diverse districts and have the power to pass ordinances, investigate wrongdoing in the bureaucracy, and debate County policies in the open.
  3. Appointing rather than electing 7 of the 8 "row offices" (Recorder, Auditor, Sheriff, Coroner, Engineer, Clerk of Courts and Treasurer) leads to a unified, professionally administered executive branch that greatly reduces patronage, duplication and waste.
  4. New safeguards against corruption and abuse of power include mandatory internal audits, centralized employment standards, a code of ethics covering conflicts of interest, a whistle-blower mandate, possible recall elections, and a charter amendment process.
  5. Powerful new focus on both economic development and regional collaboration brings limited Home Rule flexibility that will enable new initiatives to reverse county decline.
  6. This charter is backed by 53,000 petition signatures and a bipartisan group of political and civic leaders including the League of Women Voters. It is drawn from the best features of the Summit County charter, the 1996 Barber Commission draft, the Municipal League's Model County Charter, and suggestions by the drafting group, municipal law specialists, and other contributors. Diverse opinions were sought, respected and incorporated.

BALLOT QUESTION 5: "Shall a county charter commission be chosen?"

This question was put on the ballot in mid-July by the County Commissioners, who also support 15 of the 30 candidates running for the 15 Charter Commissioner seats. If this issue passes, the county charter commission must meet the Ohio constitutional mandate to study county government and various options for reform and to draft a charter for voter consideration in November 2010. The 30 candidates will appear on the ballot without political affiliation. The League of Women Voters neither supports nor opposes this issue or any candidates.

Three studies of Cuyahoga's government structure and operations have taken place since 1995, and nine since 1935. The League of Women Voters has published a brochure detailing its own study findings -- "A Citizen Guide to Cuyahoga County Government," available on line. It is our opinion that another year of study would be a costly delay of reforms already well crafted and ready to go. No one can know what degree of independence or reform the County Commissioners' own panel might produce.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Patmon gets newspaper endorsement -- from Renner's Independent

"Bill Patmon Must Win!" shouts the cover of The Independent, the new alternative newspaper from ex-Scene writer James Renner. I'm sure the mayoral challenger would rather have gotten endorsed by the Plain Dealer or Crain's or the Call & Post -- Renner's endorsement editorial, titled "How you should vote if you're not a total d-bag," is unlikely to pop up on {Update, 10/29: Wrong!}

Still, it must have cheered Patmon up to travel the city this week and see his proud, slightly smiling face next to the cover type, "Why this man should be Cleveland's next mayor." (The October issue, available at several bars and bookstores, is the third edition of the alternative monthly, which includes lots of cheeky political coverage and the whodunit crime investigations Renner's best known for.)

Jackson, Renner argues, has "fumbled away any real involvement in the Med Mart deal, a development opportunity the city should have had a say in." Patmon, he says, "has a plan, in fact several, for Cleveland ... real, doable improvements." The challenger outlines a few in an interview with the paper: using Cleveland Public Power to create green jobs, creating an immigrant welcome center, and breaking the school system into five sub-districts.

Two weeks before Election Day, Patmon is tearing into Jackson on the Cleveland schools, calling his education record "a dismal failure." Patmon has an op-ed in Sunday's Plain Dealer that notes the city's schools have a much lower graduation rate than any other big Ohio school district. Cleveland's district has more administrators and pays its top administrators more than the Columbus school district, which has more students enrolled, he adds.

I'd link to Patmon's op-ed, but it hasn't been posted on His op-ed from last weekend, criticizing the plan to move the port, is online, along with the mayor's pro-port op-ed.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kucinich, LaTourette practice trust falls, wear Snuggies on Jay Leno show

People who know Cleveland politics really well know that U.S. Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Steve LaTourette are friends, that they've worked together on bills and speak well of each others' leadership. (LaTourette defended Kucinich from his fellow Republicans in my Dec. 2007 Kucinich profile, "The Missionary.")

So when D.L. Hughley, comedian and correspondent for The Jay Leno Show, went to Washington in search of health-care common ground, he turned to the unlikely Northeast Ohio congress-buddies. After a few seconds of debate on whether health care is a right and whether we should nationalize any more of our economy, Hughley got Dennis and Steve to sing "Kum Ba Ya" together (with LaTourette on mini-guitar), practice trust falls together, play on a swingset, and wear Snuggies while watching Leno.

The interview took place in Kucinich's office, under an unusually large photograph of Kucinich and his famously young, crimson-haired wife.

Citizens' petition against Russo dropped

The petitioners who asked for an exam of Frank Russo's books have dropped their request, satisfied that state auditor Mary Taylor is going to do a performance audit.

It's a quiet ending to a great bit of political theater, in which local Republicans used an obscure, ancient law to try to scrutinize an FBI-raided government office, and the implicated official responded with punishing subpoenas.

Now that we know the feds think Russo took $1.2 million in bribes, and now that other elected officials have successfully called for the sort of review the petitioners wanted months ago, the residents have concluded their work is finished.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Zanotti, Jones debate Issues 5, 6

Could a new Cuyahoga County government do more to spark economic development? That question led to the most intense exchange between Peter Lawson Jones and Martin Zanotti at their City Club debate today.

The county commissioner and Parma Heights mayor dueled over Issues 5 and 6, the two county reform plans on the November ballot.

Zanotti said Issue 6 -- which would create a new county government led by an executive and council -- would make economic development a top priority. Jones defended the county's economic development record while arguing for Issue 5, which would create a county charter commission to write an alternate reform plan.

“Our county government today has no long-term economic plan, because it’s not its mission,” Zanotti argued. “Issue 6 is the only true reform measure on the ballot this November that will offer concrete plans to meet our challenges head on.”

Zanotti explained how the county charter proposed in Issue 6 would create a new economic development commission to help the new government write a five-year economic plan. (Here's the proposed charter -- details are in Section 7.)

Jones, who’s pushed hard for the county to do more for economic development, said Zanotti's proposal wouldn't add much. “Issue 6 says we'll have a director of development,” Jones countered. “We already have that. Issue 6 says, we'll have a department of development. We already have that. It says we’ll have an economic development commission. … We already have something called CuyahogaNext Advisers, that’s been active for the last five years, advising the county government how to spend our funds [to encourage] economic development, and that has created such projects as innovation zones and the North Coast Technologies Opportunity Fund.”

Almost half of the county’s discretionary funds go to economic development already, Jones said. County government can't do much more because almost all of its funds are earmarked by the state for social services and the justice system. In Ohio’s government structure, “Health and human services is the primary function of county government,” Jones argued. “We’re doing as best we can in economic development, in terms of setting aside discretionary dollars.”

“So, Mayor Zanotti,” said moderator Dan Moulthrop, “much of that couldn’t really change.” That set Zanotti off.

“Wrong. I don’t agree with that for a minute,” Zanotti said. There are 5,800 employees that work for the county.” (Actually, it’s 8,500, Jones corrected him.) “Are they all working in the right department? Are they all necessary? ... The patronage that is rampant throughout Cuyahoga County right now is at the core of what needs to be changed, and [that’s] how we will come up with the funds necessary to provide for critical economic development opportunities.”

The Issue 6 charter would replace patronage and duplicated positions with standard hiring practices and a county-wide human resources department, he said. “We’ve got to take those savings and invest it in health and human services and economic development.”

Jones said Issue 6 supporters have failed to say how much money their plan would save."“I don't think I’ve seen an election yet where one side hasn’t said, 'If you just let me in, I’m going to slash the number of [employees],'" he said. The county government is already about to reduce its work force to the lowest level in 20 years, Jones said.

When attention turned to Issue 5, the debate got more vague. Jones' plan would set up a commission to write a charter, and though the slate of commission candidates Jones supports has criticized Issue 6, they've said little about what reforms they’d prefer. The uncertainty seemed to frustrate the moderator.

“What guarantees are there for voters that passing Issue 5 will improve the climate of accountability and transparency in government?” Moulthrop asked.

“Of the slate members I happen to be supporting," Jones replied, "13 of them have already pledged that county government campaign finance reform will be one of first things they tackle, and it will be in the charter." Later, Jones added that the Real Reform Done Right slate has pledged to fulfill their duties in the state constitution by writing a charter next year and putting it on the Nov. 2010 ballot – and they’ve promised to hold multiple meetings across the county, address economic development in the charter, and not to run for any of the offices the charter would create.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

City Club announces debates for mayor, ballot issues

The City Club announced its election debates today.

-Tomorrow, Wed., Oct. 14, county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones and Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti debate Issues 5 and 6, the county reform plans.

-Mon., Oct. 19, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams debate Issue 3, the casino proposal. (Gilbert plans to open a casino in Cleveland if 3 passes; Williams is against 3.)

-Wed., Oct. 21, radio host Tom Kelly and attorney Ron Johnson debate Issues 5 and 6. Both represent slates running for the county charter review commission that Issue 5 would create. Kelly is with the Citizens Reform Association slate, which supports Issue 6's idea of a county executive form of government. Johnson is part of the Real Reform Done Right slate, which opposes 6.

-Wed., Oct. 28, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson debates his opponent, former city councilman Bill Patmon.

The events kick off at noon with lunch. The debates start at 12:30 pm. They're all going to be broadcast live on WCPN, 90.3 FM. They should also be available online as live webcasts and as podcasts afterward.

I plan to blog about the Jones-Zanotti debate and the Jackson-Patmon debate.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mason to return or donate up to $100,000 in employee contributions

Seeking to end this week's controversy over county reform and money in local politics, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason says he'll return campaign contributions he's taken from his own employees. If an employee doesn't want the money back, he'll donate it to charity.

Mason could give up as much as $100,000 in campaign contributions -- that's how much he got from prosecutor's office employees between 2004 and 2008.

If Issue 6 passes, Mason added, he'll set up a panel to write campaign finance reform rules for the proposed new Cuyahoga County government. "We will... deliver provisions that can be considered and acted upon as soon as the new county government is formed," his Saturday e-mail to the Plain Dealer said.

This is an important promise. Take a look at Saturday's letter to the editor from Ohio Citizen Action's Catherine Turcer:

1) There are no limits on campaign contributions to candidates for county-level office; 2) employees are permitted to contribute to their bosses, reinforcing patronage; 3) pay-to-play limits affect only those with unbid contracts and are hard to enforce; and 4) campaign contribution information for candidates for county office and public officials is not available online, which is the very definition of transparency today.

By addressing the issue, Mason is trying to stop a strong counterattack from Issue 5 supporters. Tarred as defenders of the status quo in Cuyahoga County, this week they grabbed campaign finance reform to try to position themselves as bolder reformers than the Issue 6 side. The Issue 5 side attacked Mason for taking checks from his employees, then declared that their campaign wouldn't take any donations from county workers and promised that the pro-5 charter commission slate would address campaign finance reform. Issue 6's proposed charter doesn't include any new campaign finance rules.

Mason's two moves should neutralize this attack. The 5 side will probably say, "How do we know that we'll get campaign finance reform if 6 passes?" -- but the obvious counterattack from the 6 side will be, "How do we know what kind of reform we'll get on any subject if 5 passes?" Issue 5 would set up a charter commission, and the pro-5 charter commission slate has said little about what kind of charter they'd write if elected -- they just promise an open process.

One more Mason note: meanwhile, he's quarrelling with the PD because the paper is questioning his hiring of campaign donor Bobby DiGeronimo's daughter-in-law.

Friday, October 9, 2009

me on Feagler re Issues 5 and 6, Obama, First Energy

I'm a guest on WVIZ's Feagler & Friends this weekend, talking about Issues 5 and 6, President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize and the war in Afghanistan, Ohio executions, and the botched First Energy light bulb plan.

The show airs tonight at 8:30 pm and Sunday at 11:30 am. Also talking with host Dick Feagler are Ohio Magazine publisher Rich Osborne and radio reporter Greg Saber.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Issue 5 vs. 6: the reform duel gets nasty

It's 26 days before Cuyahoga County chooses among the dueling reform plans, and the fight has gotten nasty.

The huge Plain Dealer headline today started the brawl: "Issue 5 supporters call on Mason to return donations." Bill Mason, Issue 6 co-architect and the only county official whose job wouldn't be wiped out by his ballot proposal, got $102,000 in contributions from his own employees over the last five years.

The Issue 5 people want him to return it all. They're also arguing that 6 should be shot down because it doesn't include campaign finance reform that makes it illegal for county officials to get employee donations.

"He's put together a plan that essentially fosters corruption," Issue 5 spokesman Brian Wright tells the PD.

False: it only leaves the same campaign finance rules in place. {Update, 11/1: I originally wrote that we don't know if we'll get campaign finance reform if 5 passes either. Still technically correct, but most of the pro-5 Real Reform Done Right charter commission slate has since said they'd include it in a new charter.}

But the 5 supporters' attack is shrewd. It puts the spotlight on Mason, an aspiring reformer, yet someone known for embracing some old-school political tactics.

Mason fought back. He asked whether Issue 5 supporters Jim Rokakis, Peter Lawson Jones, Frank Jackson and Marcia Fudge will return their donations from employees.

Oops: Rokakis doesn't take any. Fudge can't, by law, and didn't when she was a mayor -- she fired off a press release saying so this afternoon. {Update, 10/9: The PD's story says Jackson got only $150 from city employees last year. Jones has taken $13,000 from county workers in two years. "You have to balance employees' First Amendment rights with not putting them in a position where they feel pressured to give," Jones says.}

An hour ago, the 6 campaign struck back, with Martin Zanotti, Joe Cimperman, and Nina Turner all offering scathing quotes. Since it's not online, I'll paste it below.

By "lie and smears," I'm guessing Zanotti means the false argument I mentioned above, though Mason's employees' (legal) contributions are a matter of record.

Also, I picked up a flyer today from an Issue 5 supporter. That's the front side of it at the top of this post. Here's the other side:

It's intended for union members -- hence its claim that Issue 6 is the "big business/Republican reform plan," though the 6 effort also includes many prominent Democrats. Also, it's funny how it uses a Plain Dealer quote to make 6 sound bad -- when the paper's editorial page is very pro-6.

Dueling reforms? This is no gentlemanly contest: it's a bare-fisted brawl.

Press release from Issue 6 campaign:
County politicians will say anything to stop real reform

Blasting back against the rank hypocrisy and unfounded slurs against County Prosecutor and Issue 6 co-chair Bill Mason, other Issue 6 co-chairs called on Issue 5 supporters to admit their role in causing the crisis that makes real county reform a necessity.

“The lie and smears coming from the Issue 5 campaign are really stunning, and the voters of Cuyahoga County aren’t going to buy what they’re selling,” said Parma Hts. Mayor and Issue 6 co-chair Marty Zanotti. “Why are they going after County Prosecutor Mason? It’s simple: because he’s actually standing up for real reform. Why didn’t they ask for donation returns from themselves? Dimora, Russo, Hagan, and Jones are the reason we need reform in the first place.”

“We’ve seen this all before,” continued Zanotti. “Reform has been debated and killed for decades in this county. Entrenched political interests refuse to give up their fiefdoms. This flailing by the Issue 5 campaign is just meant to confuse voters, just like Issue 5 itself is meant to confuse voters. When they are really scared, they start with the personal attacks, as we’ve now seen with their attempts to discredit Prosecutor Mason. He’s tough enough to stand up to them, and county voters are smart enough not to fall for their lies and tricks.”

Cleveland City Councilman and Issue 6 co-chair Joe Cimperman said, “Issue 6 means real reform, real checks and balances, and a real chance to turn our county around. Our opponents are trying everything they can to derail real reform. More than 50,000 signed a petition to put Issue 6 on the ballot. We won’t rest until county residents know that that the way to real reform is No on 5, Yes on 6.”

State Senator and Issue 6 co-chair Nina Turner said, “Don’t be fooled: this is the last gasp of a dying political cabal clinging to its final breath. It won’t work. Cuyahoga County residents are sick of the crime, corruption, and cronyism of the past. We all deserve better, and we aim to get it with Issue 6. This is our golden hour – the point where we have a real chance to enact change in this county. We need to take advantage of this chance and pass Issue 6.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Brewer: "That is me in those pictures"

"That is me in those pictures," Eric Brewer said on Inside Edition yesterday.

A week after losing his re-election bid, the East Cleveland mayor says the infamous boudoir photos of him in women's lingerie "were taken by a female friend of mine."

The pictures, a subject of rumors in East Cleveland for some time, were broadcast on WKYC TV-3 six days before the mayoral election. Brewer again blamed them for his defeat (a question I considered in this post last week).

"I myself heard someone say that they were voting for the mayor who wore pants, and one lady said that she did not want to vote for a mayor who would compete with her for wearing her panties," Brewer says.

Inside Edition also interviewed mayor-elect Gary Norton. "No one in my campaign had anything to do with the release of those photos," Norton said.

Brewer said his 23-year-old son Chase has "been relentless in teasing me. I'm dad, I'm mom. He hasn't called me Tootsie yet."

"I love my father regardless. And whatever he does...that's his business, I'm going to support him," says Chase.

The Plain Dealer reports that East Cleveland city council member Mildred Brewer (no relation) is calling for Brewer's resignation: "We have been disgraced nationally," she said. "I think a man should be a man, and a woman should be a woman."

Another councilman, Nathaniel Martin, says the mayor should not resign. "If it is him, it is his private life, and it doesn't take away from his abilities to do his job," Martin told the PD.

Update, 11:30 a.m.: What will Brewer do after politics? Mansfield Frazier at has some ideas. In a funny yet fairly sympathetic column, he advises:

Likely, ... he will go back to what he knows and start up another newsmagazine that he can use to blast everyone he can think of, [which] might be temporarily satisfying, but is exactly the wrong thing to do. ... Besides writing a book and erecting a website, as one experienced TV producer recently said to me, Brewer needs to develop a cable TV show where he debates with himself.

Monday, October 5, 2009

FitzGerald: "I may be appointed county auditor"

The Frank Russo resignation watch is heating up. Thursday afternoon, Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald posted this on

It's possible that I may be appointed County Auditor due to the emergency situation currently involving that office. I'm sure some people won't like that, and some will be happy about it. I have no plans to move out of the city my family has called home since 1929. I own a home here, I'm raising my kids here, and I'm staying here.

Seven hours later, a guy with the screen name "Eugmc" posted this on

A source has informed The Cleveland Leader that embattled Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo will be stepping down from office in the very near future. Edward Fitzgerald, currently the Mayor of the City of Lakewood, will assume the role of County Auditor, the source added. The replacement for the Mayor of Lakewood would be a high level official in the suburb.

FitzGerald's announcement is no surprise: He's been running for Russo's job all year, lobbying the party insiders who vote on mid-term appointments. But why's he going public with it now? Maybe he thinks he has the job locked up. (Mark Naymik thinks he's close.) And maybe he hears Russo's leaving soon.

I wonder if the Leader rumor came from FitzGerald's camp. Hard to say how reliable it is.

No one can make Russo leave. But the heat on him must be getting unbearable. He knows the feds think he stole $1.2 million in cash. The attorney general and state auditor are both going to pore over his office's books. Former allies want him gone. Clinging to his job until trial might have seemed easy this winter, but not so today.

FitzGerald's making a shrewd move. He's a former FBI agent, so he's attractive to Democrats who want to purge corruption before it taints the party further. FitzGerald even called attorney general Richard Cordray last month to press him to investigate Russo.

An aggressive campaigner, FitzGerald ran former mayor Tom George out of office in 2007 with a tough, scary message portraying Lakewood as a suburb on the brink, threatened by crime and aging homes. Running on the slogan "Vote like your neighborhood depended on it" (that's approximate -- I'm writing from memory here), FitzGerald won twice as many votes as George.

Earlier this year, one party insider told me FitzGerald was running too hard for Russo's job, as if the mayor's ambition was coming off as unseemly. But now it's sounding like his tenacity will pay off.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

East Cleveland voters unseat Brewer: Was it the pictures?

Did the racy pictures take him down?

East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer was thrown out of office Tuesday, six days after WKYC TV 3 broadcasted photos purported to be of the mayor in women's lingerie.

Last Wednesday must've been the worst day of Brewer's life: the TV report came out only hours after his father, Harold Pride Brewer, died. At a press conference the next day, Brewer wouldn't confirm or deny the photos were of him. But in his classic combative style, he tried to turn the scandal into a jujitsu counterattack. He accused city cops and his election opponent, city council president Gary Norton, of passing the photos around. Norton has repeatedly denied this; the head of the police union denied it too.

Once WKYC ran the cross-dressing boudoir photos, the other local TV stations got a hold of their own copies and ran 'em too. Now they've gone viral, inspiring a snarky post from celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and jokes on the Late Late Show (which inspired this blog post about transgendered rights).

Tuesday night, Brewer lost, attracting only 36 percent of the vote. He blamed the photo scandal. "The reality is the only thing that got [Norton] over was the media broadcasting the information, pictures that had not been authenticated," Brewer told Fox 8 reporter Kevin Freeman.

Phillip Morris will have none of that. East Cleveland voters "did themselves a tremendous public service," he writes in his Plain Dealer column today. He quotes Norton as saying: "By electing me, voters have said they want a mayor who operates from a different set of values and tactics. They want a consensus builder -- not a destroyer."

I heard that line -- destroyer -- while reporting for my May 2006 profile of Brewer, "Ready to Rumble." The mayor, a longtime muckraking journalist, has a knack for tearing his enemies apart. That's actually one reason voters elected him mayor in 2005: I think they agreed with his judgments of former mayor Saratha Goggins, whom he unseated after writing about her manslaughter conviction, and his archenemy, previous mayor Emmanuel Onunwor, who ended up in federal prison for taking bribes from Nate Gray. Norton gave Brewer less to work with: The mayor's newspaper-style campaign literature tried to make the challenger sound dangerous by reporting on his bad grades in college.

Still, even the Plain Dealer editorial page, which endorsed Norton, had to admit Brewer delivered on some key issues. He added cops to the police force, the crime rate has fallen under his leadership, and he kept his biggest campaign promise: he lowered water rates, thanks to a new deal with Cleveland's water department.

So how would the election have gone without the photos? I don't think anyone polled East Cleveland during the race, so I drove through the city last week, conducting my own Extremely Scientific Lawn Sign Poll.

By my count, Norton's red signs outnumbered Brewer's green, but not by a lot. Brewer seemed to have almost as many supporters as Norton in some neighborhoods just north and south of Euclid Avenue. But Norton's slim sign advantage got stronger when I drove up the hill to the middle-class neighborhood next to Cleveland Heights that includes some Rockefeller homes.

{My guess is, without the photo scandal, Norton would've have won, but the race would've been pretty close.} Update, 10/29: A closer look at the election results proves this wrong.

Brewer got 37% at the polls on Election Day, and only 34% in early voting. The vast majority of early votes in East Cleveland -- 836 of 971 -- were already cast by Sept. 24, the day Brewer held his press conference about the photos.

The results before and after were almost the same: 2 to 1 against the mayor.

Why did the Lawn Sign Poll fail me? Take a look at the anonymous comment below for a possible reason: The foreclosure epidemic may throw it off.