The county council is bracing itself for its first major disagreement with Ed FitzGerald -- and trying to prevent an all-out war with the Plain Dealer. It’s poised to reappoint two people who joined the boards of revision late last year – after the exposés that called the integrity of local property valuations into question.
The county executive and the daily paper insist that no one on the boards of revision should be reappointed. They want a “clean sweep,” they say. But the council will choose most of the new board members -- and it sees a clear distinction between the longtime board members who served during the scandal years and people named to the board to cope with the scandals’ fallout.
“Someone who came on board after all the problems, and someone who stepped up to help the county out as those taxpayers’ cases were backing up … I think they’re in a different category,” says Jack Schron (pictured), a Republican councilman. He and council president C. Ellen Connally are meeting with the Plain Dealer editorial board today to try to get the paper to give the recent appointees a chance.
Two of council’s eight leading candidates for the boards of revision are post-scandal appointees who joined the boards in August 2010 or later, Schron tells me. (He wouldn’t name them because they haven’t passed pre-employment checks yet, but he said they weren’t Frank Russo appointees.)
“Some of these people, they were asked to take on a yeoman’s task of coming forward and helping our the county in a backlog situation and help work through it,” Schron says. “It’s hard for me to find fault with people who stepped up and made a civic commitment.”
Schron says council is unlikely to reappoint any longtime board of revision incumbents.
“Whether or not they did anything improper, they were in that era where the public is looking for a fresh start,” he says. “Unfortunately, some of them might get caught up in that. … It doesn’t mean they couldn’t be a candidate, but it’s going to be a lot harder to get past all the concerns people have.” That’s not just his opinion: “I do believe that’s the general consensus [on council].”
Four of the 28 candidates council recently interviewed are longtime incumbent board members. That means they arguably share responsibility for the shoddy or questionable work the Plain Dealer exposed: half-days of work, bad record-keeping, board members lowering the tax values of each others’ properties. One has dropped out since.
Seven other candidates joined the boards between August and November 2010, after the exposés. They’re the candidates that the council and the executive disagree over. County chief of staff Matt Carroll confirms that FitzGerald wants even the post-scandal hires cleared off the boards.
“Even those people were not selected in an open way,” Carroll told me Friday. “It was a closed process. People were not given the opportunity to apply. Some people were selected, possibly [people] of quality, but the fact that it was not an open process, that is a reason they could not be reappointed. That is a continuing taint to the process. That’s the difference. [There’s] a different level of quality and culpability, but that [they were] not part of an open process continues to concern.”
This seems pretty weak to me. Someone who joined the boards in the fall isn’t the least bit “culpable” for bad practices exposed earlier. And anyone who gets reappointed will have answered an open posting this time and made it through a four-step screening process.
That’s unlikely to satisfy the Plain Dealer. Like an overzealous watchdog that tries to bite everyone who startles it, it’s made the county council its favorite new chew toy. (It bit the council six times in five days last week: Monday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Thursday, Friday.)
That’s why Schron and Connally are trying to get the editorial board to reconsider its opposition to the recent appointees. “Sorry, draining the swamp halfway cannot be an option,” an editorial snarled unpersuasively last week.
If the PD starts howling again about the board of revision, casting council as the old guard, politics as usual, etc. etc., it can probably do a lot of further damage to the council’s reputation. Or it could change its mind and draw a basic distinction: Between those who share responsibility for the board of revision’s past failures and those who don’t.
Update, 1/21: Today's editorial signals a welcome truce, or at least some détente -- ruining my plans to create a drinking game out of the PD's county council coverage. (If the paper uses the phrase "secret meeting," slam your drink!)