Monday, September 14, 2009

PD's inside story on dueling reforms: Who looks good, who looks bad

Dan Moulthrop of WCPN posted this on Facebook today: "Just finished reading Amanda Garrett's Sunday piece on the politics behind the dueling county reform measures. I've gotta say, if what she writes is true, some of our local leaders look pretty unimpressive. Others look pretty great. Your thoughts?"

I agree. That's one reason Garrett's story is a must-read: her intimate narrative of the politics behind the two ballot measures reveals a lot about how Cleveland's politicians think and act.

Lillian Greene, the county recorder, looks the worst. She comes off as an obstructionist who only joined Martin Zanotti's reform meetings to disrupt them. She walked out of one meeting after giving an angry speech.

Greene's office is the most obvious one to eliminate if you're trying to make county government more efficient -- do we really need to elect someone just to record deeds? But even though the Issue 6 group painstakingly gerrymandered the county council map to create four black-majority districts, Greene thinks she owes it to black voters to hang onto her job:

"Why would the black community go backward when never before in the more than 200-year history of the county have we had two countywide elected officials!" Greene recounted in an e-mail to The Plain Dealer, referring to herself and Peter Lawson Jones. ...

Greene said she told the reform group a story about an older black woman who had recently approached her. The woman asked Greene who she was and when Greene told her, the woman told Greene how proud she was of her being in office.

"That was the final piece that solidified my position on this 'reform,' " Greene said.

State Sen. Nina Turner looks put-upon and courageous in the story. The 2nd graf describes the reaction when Turner signed on to the Issue 6 effort to create a county executive and council:

Several operatives for Cleveland's most powerful black Democrats -- many of whom Turner had looked up to -- telephoned the young black Democrat with this dire warning: They would ruin her if she didn't reconsider, Turner said.

How dare she break ranks with black leaders, they admonished, according to Turner.

Harriet Applegate, the local AFL-CIO head, looks indecisive and defensive of the status quo -- or undercut by her union's rank and file. She surprises Zanotti by e-mailing him a draft of a (never-issued) press release that tenatively praises the Issue 6 group's efforts:

The county reform proposal being released today represents good progress in the hammering out of a consensus document. ... The result is a proposal that addresses the concerns raised by critics over the years as well as the current need for better facilitation of economic development.

But five days later, Applegate's union votes against the reform plan. Here's her explanation:

Applegate said recently that it took some distance from the group to realize that the reform plan was wrong. "We met people so involved, so committed, so passionate about their project that it was hard to say no to them," she said.

Zanotti claims she told him something different:

Applegate later called to explain, Zanotti said. "She basically said the unions were concerned about protecting their friends -- Jimmy [Commissioner Dimora] and Frank [Auditor Russo] -- and the other elected officials."

That's a third-hand account -- union members to Applegate to Zanotti to Garrett -- filtered through Zanotti's bias. But it's still damning, if true.

Zanotti is clearly a key source for Garrett's story. The online version says the reporter spoke to two dozen people, but Zanotti, the public face of the Issue 6 effort, emerges as the main character of the narrative. (He also seems to be Garrett's likely source for the Applegate e-mail.)

So Issue 6 opponents will probably dismiss Garrett's story as biased. They think a county executive and council are a bad idea, so surely they're glad that the effort led to "political turmoil"! But they'll probably like a few parts of the story, including the way it describes county prosecutor Bill Mason:

The Parma native is an insider's insider in the county Democratic Party. Why would he want to change a government he helped foster?

Mason has a simple answer -- to save a dying region. Doubters suspect otherwise.

As the FBI snoops through the homes and offices of Cuyahoga County Democrats looking for corruption, the doubters say Mason may want to shed his party insider image and rebrand himself a reformer who crosses party lines.

Issue 6's opponents will likely scoff at Zanotti's failed attempts to get political organizer Arnold Pinkney to round up black support for the proposal:

Zanotti wanted Pinkney to help break through the fear. As Zanotti tells it, he told Pinkney that reform must move forward but that it couldn't if the change was seen as racially divisive. ... He asked Pinkney to act as a sounding board for the black community and as a catalyst to bring its leadership to the table.

Finally, opponents will note that the story includes the names of three wealthy Republican political donors -- Umberto Fedeli, Mal Mixon, and Ed Crawford -- involved in the Issue 6 charter group. This is only the second PD story to mention Fedeli and Mixon's involvement. Opponents love to call Issue 6 the "Zanotti-Mason-Republican effort," to try to discredit it with Democratic voters.

Issue 6 opponents won't like one part of the story at all: the line where Garrett falls back on a biased bad habit the Plain Dealer has picked up. The paper, echoing Issue 6 supporters, keeps saying the charter commission proposed in Issue 5 would only "study" reform:

Instead of putting forward a specific plan, the commissioners asked voters to create a 15-member charter review commission that would study reform -- again.

I've written about this before. Peter Lawson Jones is right, and the Issue 6 supporters wrong: the Ohio Constitution would require the charter commission to write a charter and put it on the ballot next year.

The real question is, what would the charter commission propose -- major changes to county government or minor fixes? Applegate and the slate of charter commission candidates she heads won't say. You can bet they won't create a county executive, though.

At the City Club debate last month, the ever-shifting Applegate sounded like she might be willing to eliminate some of the many elected offices in county government (like coroner, recorder, engineer, etc.). But this spring, Garrett's story says, Applegate sent a memo to AFL-CIO supporters complaining about Mason getting involved in reform:

The memo included a half-dozen points, including Mason involving Republicans in reform and the possible elimination of "elected offices in a county which is the largest and most solidly Democratic Party in Ohio."

Most county reform ideas address three questions: Should we have an executive and council, or keep the three commissioners? Should some elected offices become appointed? And should some of those offices be merged?

Applegate's April memo makes it sound like she's against all three of those possible changes. So does she really want a charter commission to change anything?


Buddy Milo said...

Nothing will change if the current political methods are left intact. Private money must be removed from politics... completely. Elected positions are all public so the funds used to elect them and run their departments should be public. Until this change occurs everything we do is for nil.

Bill Callahan said...

It's funny, I read Garrett's story and thought everyone in it, with the possible exceptions of Turner and Frank Jackson, looked pretty awful.

What I found most striking was the picture of a frustrated Zannotti and Co. searching high and low for some black leader, any back leader, who would buy into their predetermined definition of "reform" (along with their apparent requirement to work out the deal in secret). Of course they could have accepted Jackson's naively rational approach -- let's first agree on substantive goals, and then discuss (in public) what structural changes are most likely to produce those outcomes. Instead they kept on shopping until they found Turner (who apparently just really agrees with them).

If this all makes the Issue 6 guys "look good", I gotta say we're applying some bizarre standards around here.

P.S. Speaking of substantive outcomes, here's a question to ponder: If Cuyahoga County hadn't had an elected Treasurer during the past five years, would we now have one of the nation's most respected Foreclosure Prevention programs? How about a County Land Bank?

Erick Trickey said...

Bill -- I thought the story made Nina Turner look good for standing on principle.

As for other Issue 6 supporters -- the piece comes off as sympathetic to Zanotti, but for people who don't agree with him, there's also plenty to comment about (as you did).

I agree that Frank Jackson comes off as having a consistent and thoughtful approach to the issue.