Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mason talks reform

Prosecutor Bill Mason wants to play a part in reforming Cuyahoga County government. He’s been meeting with interested people since the first of the year to talk about it.

“Reform would be a good thing, to reform that government and make us more competitive in the marketplace,” Mason told me today.

The prosecutor’s group is separate from the reform effort I’ve already written about, which includes Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti and other politicians and businessmen (including Lute Harmon, Sr., founder of Cleveland Magazine). Mason is not ready to say who else is in his group yet, but I hear it also includes prominent businesspeople.

Mason, one of the county's most powerful office-holders, is entering a debate that outsiders have mostly driven lately. That could lead to conflict -- or to a creative tension.

I asked him if his group and Zanotti's might join forces. “We have to,” he said. “You can’t have multiple plans.” Dueling reforms would fail at the ballot box. “We need to come to one thought, and make it work.”

Mason says he likes the Zanotti group’s idea of having a single county executive oversee the government. He’s undecided about their proposal to create a county council elected mostly by district.

“I favor one person being in charge,” he says. “But after that, [we should look at] what anyone else is doing — what Louisville is doing, what Indianapolis is doing — to be more competitive.”

Reform is “all about jobs,” says Mason, who laments that his nephews are leaving town to pursue their careers. He feels a stronger county could unify the region around a single economic strategy. (Louisville and Indianapolis actually merged their city and county governments to create a single metro government, but Mason seems to be focusing on county government’s structure.)

“The three commissioners, and six other elected officials, all have their own silos in which they operate,” he complains. “You don’t have one place to go if you want to [build] a factory in town. [You need] somebody in charge, pushing the agenda for the region.”

Mason says the revamped county should have an elected fiscal officer to keep watch on government finances, a check on the county executive. He thinks his job should remain elected for the same reason: a boss shouldn’t tell the prosecutor which felonies to prosecute or what legal advice to give other county officials. “Though you might say, [as] prosecutor, what I say doesn’t matter,” he adds — in other words, he has an obvious self-interest, so others’ opinions will carry more weight.

He says he's open-minded about the details of reform. “I could be persuaded it has to be this way, [or] could be persuaded one way or another,” he says.

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