Thursday, July 17, 2014

Will the corruption watchdog get protection?

Today, the Cuyahoga County council will debate a bunch of possible amendments to the county charter. The most important would create new protections for the inspector general, the government’s anti-corruption watchdog. It’ll be a close vote.

The inspector general’s office gives employees and the public a confidential place to report wrongdoing. The first inspector general, Nailah Byrd, has looked into a lot of small allegations about misused public money and time and prompted the resignation of several employees.

But the inspector general’s real moment of truth will come someday, when the office fields a serious allegation against a county executive, a council member, or one of their political allies. Will the inspector general be able to investigate without punishment?

Right now, a council that didn’t like an investigation could simply vote to fire the inspector general or abolish the office. A charter amendment written by Dave Greenspan, a reform-minded Republican councilman, would protect the inspector general by adding the office to the charter. An inspector general would be appointed for a four-year term and could only be removed mid-term by a two-thirds council majority.

The amendment has bipartisan support. Jack Schron, the county councilman and Republican candidate for county executive, predicts voters would approve it if they get the chance.

So what’s the holdup?

Council president Ellen Connally opposes the amendment. She questions the size of the inspector general’s budget, about $1 million, and she questions why investigations are made public whether a complaint is founded or not. Worthwhile questions, but the council would still have the power to address them if an amendment passes.

Sunny Simon, the council’s vice-president, could be a swing vote. She wants to allow a simple majority of council to fire the inspector general. That may not be enough protection in the future, if a political machine controls both the executive's office and council.

Another proposed charter amendment would require the executive to get council’s approval to fire the sheriff. Some council members will support this because they don't like the fact that Ed FitzGerald fired Bob Reid in 2012 with very little explanation.

The amendment would also guard against corruption, because a future county executive wouldn't be able to fire a sheriff to stop an investigation.

The council will meet today at 1 pm to decide which charter amendments to move forward.

You may hear more about other proposed amendments. A voting-rights amendment, which would give the Democrats a new weapon in Ohio’s endless war over election rules, is likely to split the council along partisan lines. Schron wants to make county elections nonpartisan, presumably to give future Republicans more of a chance in executive and prosecutor races.

Don’t let the partisan debates distract you.  If you care about keeping Cuyahoga County’s government corruption-free, and if you think the public needs more protection from the power of political machines, then the inspector general is the most important reform of all.

Update, 7/18: The council didn't get to the inspector general amendment yesterday. It's on the agenda for the July 22 meeting at 2 pm. The council voted 6-5 to advance the sheriff amendment to a final vote. But its odds are bad. Amendments need eight votes to get on the November ballot.

Update, 7/23: The council advanced the inspector general amendment yesterday on a 9-2 vote, after approving Simon's change that would allow a simple majority of council to fire the IG. They'll vote Aug. 12 whether to put it on the November ballot.

Update, 9/4: The inspector general won't make the ballot. It only got 6 votes out of 11 last month, and it needed 8. Explaining his no vote, councilman Mike Gallagher compared the inspector general to "Big Brother" and claimed she was trying to spy on county workers by obtaining video feeds. Later, he retracted his criticism -- but he still doesn't support protecting the inspector general in the charter.

This issue isn't going away. Jack Schron is championing the inspector general in his campaign for county executive.

No comments: