Monday, April 25, 2011

FitzGerald names fiscal officer, setting stage for more reform

The people who warned it'd take two years to reform Cuyahoga County government have looked pretty smart lately. All the talk of Ed FitzGerald's first 100 days as county executive, and expectation that patronage hires' heads would roll, has given way to a slower pace.

Sure, the new government has set a new tone, with FitzGerald emerging as a regional peacemaker and he and the council scrutinizing stuff that went unquestioned before, like the palatial new juvenile justice center. But the big cuts to county government, the cost savings the charter's biggest supporters envisioned, haven't come yet.

Now I think they'll come pretty soon. Today FitzGerald announced his choice for chief fiscal officer. That's the accountant who'll take over and merge the auditor's and recorder's offices, sifting through the remnants of Frank Russo and Pat O'Malley's old political hires, to figure out who's really qualified and who the county really needs.

Fitz's choice is Wade Steen (pictured), a CPA with lots of experience, and none of it in Cuyahoga County.

“As we pursue efficiencies in our operations, Wade’s background and experience will be a major asset to our efforts,” FitzGerald said in the press release.

Steen, a city councilman in Upper Arlington, a Columbus suburb, was Franklin County treasurer for two years. So he has experience managing finances for a big urban county that runs more efficiently in some ways than Cuyahoga. He was also Jim Petro's assistant chief deputy auditor, a thoroughly confusing title that I think means he was the No. 3 guy in the state auditor's office. So he also has experience digging through cities' and counties' books and knowing when they look right and when they're revealing a mess.

Most interestingly, Steen is a Republican who quotes Ronald Reagan on his website. ("Reagan's underlying humor poked fun at excessive government regulation and taxation, but also the inflexibility of government to change and the habitual need to sustain 'the beast.'")

That makes him a shrewd choice on FitzGerald's part. Nominating Steen to remake the county's two most patronage-laden offices is a big bipartisan gesture. It strengthens FitzGerald's assertion that Democratic party patronage will have no part in who stays at the county and who goes.

Once the county council confirms Steen, I expect there'll be a quiet period as Steen digs into the books and gets advice from the interim guys who ran the offices for a few months. Then, if FitzGerald's intentions from his campaign are a guide, Steen and FitzGerald will unveil a reorganization that includes substantial layoffs and nudged-into-retirements.

Then we can start to total up the cost savings from the new reorganized government. We'll see if they measure up to FitzGerald's ambitions, the looming deficits, and, most of all, the very optimistic vision of cost savings that the charter's founders trumpeted.

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