Thursday, February 11, 2010

County transition team will open up all its meetings

If you act like a government, you've got to open up like a government should. That's the lesson Martin Zanotti and Jim McCafferty learned this week. just reported that Cuyahoga County's transition advisory group will hold all its committee meetings in public. The decision comes three days after Zanotti and McCafferty, who are shepherding the switch to charter government, went on WCPN on Tuesday and got an earful.

Host Dan Moulthrop and his listeners asked: Why aren't the transition team's meetings open to the public? The Plain Dealer amplified the questions with a story. County executive candidate Ed FitzGerald joined the chorus. {Update, 2/13: So did Scene and candidate Matt Dolan.} Yesterday, the ACLU threatened to sue.

At first, McCafferty, the county administrator, and Zanotti, a leader of the charter reform effort, argued that holding some public forums would be enough. The transition committees didn't have to open all their meetings, they argued, because they aren't government bodies, just advisers. The volunteers on the committees ought to be able to talk about layoffs and other sensitive issues without fear of upsetting anyone, they argued.

Problem was, closed meetings were one reason voters turned against McCafferty's bosses, the county commissioners, and voted for Issue 6. At the same time, the most piercing criticism of Zanotti and the other Issue 6 reformers was that they'd written the charter in private. So a fight to keep the meeting doors closed threatened to revive all that distrust and hurt the new government's credibility.

Besides, the transition group has expanded way beyond what the charter calls for, from a little committee of three county employees into an ambitious partnership including the current government, Issue 6's framers, and top public officials and business executives. And it's not just making little recommendations, like a place for the new county council to meet. It's proposing huge changes in county government's priorities. Last month, Zanotti and McCafferty declared that the new government should cut spending 15 percent and start a $50 million economic development fund -- changes much bigger than the current, lame-duck government ever contemplated.

The transition group is acting like a government, even though it wasn't elected. The public needs some way to hold it accountable. Watching it work is the best solution.

Today's decision doesn't resolve county executive candidates Ken Lanci and Ed FitzGerald's complaints that they should be included in the transition effort. But Zanotti and others decided to exclude candidates to keep the transition free of politics. Now, Lanci, FitzGerald, and any other interested candidates can attend the committee meetings, learn what's going on, and talk about it if they want. That's better than taking a risk that some candidates would turn the committees into stages for their campaigns.

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