Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Farewell to the voting beat

Today I'm going to purge a bunch of documents from my office. Six and a half years of writing, story-telling, document-digging, watchdogging, and pack-ratting have left me with a room full of paper: banker's boxes and accordion files bulging with old public records and notebooks, the raw materials for narratives and investigative pieces.

One box I'm purging is the elections box. After two years of making the board of elections one of my beats (an unusual beat for a magazine writer, in most times and places), I hope not to write about Cuyahoga County's voting system again.

That's because our once-sad voting agency has gotten its act together. Cleveland and Ohio shed their reputations for election buffoonery this November with a stress-free, snafu-proof Election Day. No more national horror at our lame mistakes. No more conspiracy theories convincing our friends in other states that we're at fault for an election result they didn't like.

What I saw on Election Day -- no lines at once-clogged voting locations, the elections office calling in to check on poll workers instead of leaving them stranded by busy signals -- showed how far Cuyahoga's elections office has come. Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's decision to release the agency from her supervision this November was the final thumbs-up that confirmed our civic crisis over voting is over.

Credit goes to the leaders who took over our voting agency in 2007, from director Jane Platten to the four elections board members. I made some light fun of them in our September issue pieces on voting -- but I sat through a lot of meetings held by the old board and the new board, and saw old guard offer a perfect example of how a public agency should not act, while the new leaders showed how a troubled office can reform itself. And Brunner, who I was pretty tough on in September, held firm this fall against state Republicans' attempt to throw our system into a new round of chaos.

Yes, the board fought too much and spent too much money, straining the county budget. And a careful post-mortem look at the election results still shows ways voters can lose their vote through their own mistakes. But Platten has set up a system for noting problems and addressing them next time.

Ohio probably benefited from the fact that Obama won here by 4 percentage points. That's a margin too big to contest, so no one bothered to prod our weak spots. Any big city in a swing state or recount state will have its election flaws exposed. But some flaws are worse than others. Minnesota's Senate recount is exposing some mistakes, but way fewer than in Florida eight years ago. How will we hold up if we're the swing town in the swing state again? Much better, I think, with the officials and system we have now.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

O'Malley wasted $1m a year

Pat O'Malley infamously used the Cuyahoga County recorder's office as a patronage machine. Now the state auditor has figured out how much taxpayer money he wasted doing that: $1 million a year.

OK, the words "waste" and "patronage" do not appear in auditor Mary Taylor's press release today. But read her report along with the "Recorded Deeds" section of my October profile of O'Malley, or the Plain Dealer's April exposé of his employees' political connections, and that's the obvious conclusion.

The report says O'Malley personally chose who to hire, what job to give them, and what to pay them. That made his employees totally dependent on him and very likely loyal.

He hired too many people and paid them too much. He larded the staff with more than eight people who simply went to meetings to talk about what the recorder does -- serious overkill for an office that records deeds, but it surely helped his name recognition at election time. In all, $1 million of his $7 million annual budget was unnecessary spending.

Total control made it easy to reward political allies with jobs and get employees to campaign for him. It also made it easy to do what Cathy Luks, former North Royalton mayor and recent Republican candidate for recorder, says he did: Attempt to bribe her with one of those public outreach jobs if she quit running against him.

Taylor's press release and report put it more politely. Highlights:

-Cuyahoga County recorder's employees have a light workload. They process 2,522 documents per employee per year, compared to 3,912 and 4,688 in Franklin and Hamilton counties.

-They're overpaid. Top aides make 48 percent more than their peers in similar counties. The average employee makes more than $43,400, compared to $36,300 among their peers.

-The office should get rid of most or all of its 8.4 public outreach employees, who attend "community libraries, meetings and other events to increase awareness of services provided by the Recorder's Office." Other large Ohio counties have either 2 outreach employees or none. Cutting seven would save $365,000.

-The recorder should cut 17 other employees, saving $700,000.

-The office has no formal hiring process, evaulating process, or job descriptions. "The previous Recorder determined the need for a position, the person selected for the position, and the salary provided to that employee. ... [The office] determines initial salaries without regard to skills required and/or minimum qualifications at the time of hire."

The audit did praise the recorder's office for performing all its required duties and using new technology to make it easier for citizens to file deeds. The new recorder, Lillian Greene, says she's already started reducing the staff. She also claims the comparisons with other counties aren't fair because the others outsource some work.

My favorite tidbits from the Plain Dealer's story this morning:

-"O'Malley could not be reached Monday for comment." Yeah, because he's in federal prison, serving a 15-month sentence for downloading obscenity.

-Yet another argument for reforming county government: "Cuyahoga's elected officials, such as the recorder, have the authority to outspend their budgets and occasionally do so."

Welcome back

Hello, readers. It's been some time since I posted, so thanks for stopping by. Cleveland's political scene slowed down a lot after the presidential election's high drama, and I got caught up in some fun assignments that had nothing to do with politics (especially Cleveland beer and Superman).

Now that we've fully recovered from our post-election news hangovers, it's time to catch up. In the spirit of New Year's, this week I'm going to look at several bits of recent political news and blog about how they either helped bring big stories from 2008 to an interesting close, or hint at how the city's biggest political questions of 2009 will play out. As the new year gets going, I'll be blogging regularly about the latest headlines. Thanks again for reading.