Wednesday, August 28, 2013

County council rejects adding inspector general to charter

The Cuyahoga County council has shot down another effort that would’ve made our new government more transparent and harder to corrupt. Last night it voted not to strengthen the inspector general’s office by adding it to the charter.

The council needed 8 votes to send a charter amendment protecting the inspector general to the November ballot. The vote was 6 yes, 5 no.

“Machine Democrats continue to block real reform,” tweeted Rob Frost, the county Republican chairman last night after the vote. The council’s three Republicans all voted yes, along with three Democrats. Five Democrats said no.

The inspector general, the county’s ethics officer and anti-corruption investigator, was created to give employees a confidential place to report wrongdoing. The first IG, Nailah Byrd, has looked into problems large and small, from employees who don’t show up for work to possible irregularities in the 2005 Ameritrust complex purchase.

But the IG’s office is fragile. A future county executive and council majority who don’t like its investigations could amend or repeal the ordinance that created the office.

That’s why the charter review commission called the IG its No. 1 priority. Its proposed amendment protected the IG from unjust firing. It said the IG could only be removed before her five-year term ends by the executive and a two-thirds vote of council “for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office after notice and public hearing before the Council.” That got watered down to an amendment that simply put the IG in the charter. Even that couldn’t pass.

Councilman Dale Miller said he voted no because the amendment wasn't strong enough -- it didn’t have language about the removal process. Others said the office was still evolving or needed cost controls on it.

“The inspector general is very important,” said council president Ellen Connally, a no vote, but “I continue to have questions about due process and about the cost of the office. I don’t believe it’s time sensitive.”

County executive Ed FitzGerald disagrees. He proposed the IG as part of his 2010 campaign for his job and says it’s helped create a more open government. He says he’s “disappointed” that council didn’t pass the stronger language from the charter review commission.

“I think it should be put in the charter as soon as possible,” he says. “We don’t know what the future is going to hold in terms of future councils being supportive of the concept.” FitzGerald, who is running for governor in 2014, won’t be in his job after next year. “We don’t know what future county executives are going to have to say about that.”

The council has now shot down the charter review commission’s two best ideas for making the new government more corruption-proof. Council rejected the power to regulate campaign financing last month. The four amendments that are going on the November ballot are all small housekeeping changes – way less important than the inspector general.

Last night did bring some good news for reformers: The prosecutor’s office and law department have settled their years-long conflict about who gets to represent the county in court. FitzGerald and county prosecutor Tim McGinty nailed down the agreement at about 4:30 pm yesterday, just before the council was to vote on whether to settle the matter with a charter amendment.

The Law Department will now represent the county executive and all the departments under his control, including offices such as the medical examiner and fiscal officer. That’s good for efficiency’s sake, because the executive ought to be able to choose his own lawyer.

It’s also an important new check on corruption, because it removes a huge conflict of interest for the prosecutor. After the 2008 corruption scandal, residents clearly want the prosecutor to act as a watchdog of the county government -- which was harder to do when the county government was the prosecutor’s client.

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