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.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Traficant threatens reporter with rash, promises run for Congress

After seven years without Jim Traficant's hammy, bullying comedy act, it's disturbingly fun to read about him again. So Stephanie Warsmith of the Akron Beacon Journal proved when she dropped by Tangier in Akron to see Jimbo rant at a Libertarian candidate's sparsely attended fundraiser.


Traficant sat down with the Beacon Journal ... only after railing about the newspaper not writing anything positive about him in 30 years and threatening that another negative article would result in this reporter contracting a rash in her private parts.

Sitting at Rockne's restaurant, sipping Diet Coke after Diet Coke, Traficant seemed bitter but not defeated. He wore a gray turtleneck, black dress pants and his well-known fuzzy gray toupee, which he declined to talk about.

He might run for Congress against Tim Ryan, his former Youngstown protege, or Charlie Wilson, whose district hugs the Ohio River valley. Both are Democrats. Traficant might go third-party.

''The Democrat and Republican parties have failed,'' he said. ''Both are as worthless as tits on a bullfrog.''

Laughing at Traficant these days is like laughing at Soviet kitsch: His tackiness is harmless now that he's out of power. He's a retro-fun sideshow, a VH1 I Love the '80s with one-liners instead of music (but with just as much bad hair).

''Stimulate this!'' he said at one point — his newest catchphrase.

But when he was still in Congress, shaming Youngstown, wallowing in corruption, and accepting bribes in the form of horse-farm favors, laughing at Traficant only made him stronger. The attention fed his weird cult of personality, his outlaw shtick.

So if he chases Ryan or Wilson across eastern Ohio this summer and fall, he might be worth a few more laughs -- as long as his polling numbers linger around 10 percent or so. Youngstown is smarter than Jimbo now, right?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Russo considered, rejected civil-service move for employees

County auditor Frank Russo considered extending civil-service protection to all his employees after Issue 6 passed, but he has decided against it, says Destin Ramsey, the auditor's chief operating officer.

“We had thought about that, but we clearly don’t think it’s going to make a difference,” Ramsey told me today. “With the whole scheme of things, with the reform coming in, it would take too long.”

Russo considered the move to give his employees more job security, Ramsey says. “He came up with the idea of looking into it, and we did.” But the staff determined that civil-service protection would not prevent the new government from instituting layoffs.

“It didn’t make much difference, especially when it comes to the new government coming in — it’s going to make its own [decisions],” Ramsey says. The new charter calls for the auditor’s and recorder’s offices to merge in January 2011. The county executive will appoint a chief fiscal officer to run the new department.

The auditor’s and recorder’s offices are top targets of reformers who say patronage and corruption have bloated the county payroll. Federal prosecutors claim some auditor’s employees obtained their jobs thanks to bribery-and-favors schemes involving Russo, though he has not been charged with a crime.

County executive candidate Ken Lanci publicized the possible move to extend civil-service protection at the county in his Jan. 13 campaign announcement. Ramsey’s acknowledgment is the first confirmation that a county official considered the idea.

Around New Year’s, Russo decided not to pursue the civil-service idea, Ramsey says. One-fourth of the auditor’s staff took the recent county buyout, so the office is busy reorganizing. It’s also responding to a performance audit by state auditor Mary Taylor’s office and subpoenas from federal investigators, and may have to cope with a possible pending audit by state attorney general Richard Cordray. Extending civil-service protection involves a long process, Ramsey says — and Russo and his staff calculated they couldn’t get it and everything else done this year.

“It’s too much of a undertaking to engage in that at this time,” Ramsey says. “In light of all our responsibilities, it wouldn’t be productive for us.”

Retired reporter still gets tips: Wagner's digging at the county building

Joe Wagner retired from the Plain Dealer late last year, but he still gets reporting tips. Sources who didn’t know he'd left the paper called him recently to tell him they’d heard county auditor Frank Russo and recorder Lillian Greene might extend civil service protection to some of their employees.

So Wagner, now a spokesman for county executive candidate Ken Lanci, took the news to his new boss. Lanci mentioned it in his Jan. 13 campaign announcement (see video here).

“I’m troubled by comments that there are efforts to reclassify many county employees as civil service workers,” Lanci said. “That’s not reform, that’s political patronage again. And it’s not what we voted for.” Lanci said he’d sent the county a public records request to find out if the tips were true. “I urge the transition team to make sure no actions are taken that limit our opportunities to remake government in this new era,” he said.

Usually, creating a civil service is meant to prevent patronage. Giving government employees job security protects them from depending on their boss’s re-election. But reclassifying a patronage-laden workforce as civil service just before leaving office would have the opposite effect -- it’d make it hard for the new county executive to cut spending and fire the least-qualified employees. Wagner, author of the Plain Dealer’s 2008 “Payroll and Politics” exposés of the auditor’s and recorder’s offices, was naturally interested in the warnings. So was Lanci.

“It happened by happenstance,” Wagner says. “My sources over at the county who still thought I was there, they called me on my cell phone: ‘Did you hear that?’ ‘Well, I hadn’t, but I guess I just did!’ ”

Will any county officials try this move before the new government takes over? Or is it a false alarm? Calls I placed to the recorder’s and auditor’s offices yesterday were not returned.

{Update, 7 p.m.: Russo staffer Destin Ramsey confirms that Russo considered giving all his employees civil-service protection, but decided against it. See this new post.}

Lanci and Wagner say they’re starting to receive documents from some county agencies, but they’re still reviewing them; other county offices haven’t responded yet. “The Plain Dealer’s made a big records request over there too, on the same subject,” Wagner says. So watch for more news on this soon.