Wednesday, January 6, 2010

FitzGerald: Fighting corruption is "a passion"

Ed FitzGerald says he’s running for Cuyahoga County executive to tear the corruption out of county offices.

“I’ve been interested in reforming government in general for a long, long time,” the Lakewood mayor says. “When I went into the FBI, I requested to work on public corruption investigations. That was a passion of mine.”

FitzGerald stopped by the Starbucks in the Hanna Building last week to talk with me about his hopes of leading the new county government. He’s the first declared candidate for the new charter’s top job, though others are on the verge of announcing.

The former FBI agent says he’d clean house faster than current leaders, not wait for the long criminal investigation to run its course.

“If somebody is involved in misconduct, and I can substantiate it, I don’t have to wait for the FBI to come and drag them away,” he says. “I’m going to terminate ’em. When you start doing these things, it really sends a wake-up call that business as usual is over.”

FitzGerald says he’d get rid of corruption-implicated employees “very, very, very rapidly,” then bring in “a team from outside” to conduct rolling audits of the government, starting with its “most dysfunctional” parts, including the auditor’s office. He’d also require performance evaluations for all county employees.

The new charter names job creation as a main goal, and so does FitzGerald’s campaign. County government should be a “catalyst” for “medicine, biotechnology, clean and green energy, and arts and culture,” he said in his campaign announcement last month. He doesn’t offer spectacular new ideas on job growth, just the Issue 6 reformers’ main points: One executive can negotiate deals better than three commissioners, the county’s economic development department needs more funding, doing so without slashing human services means eliminating inefficiency and patronage on the payroll.

I can think of three big questions FitzGerald will have to answer in his run for executive. The first is his reputation as a young man in a hurry. “There doesn't seem to be a public office FitzGerald doesn’t want,” Damian Guevara and Anastasia Pantsios write in this week’s Scene. FitzGerald, 41, maneuvered this fall to become county auditor if Frank Russo resigned. He’s only been Lakewood mayor for two years.

But FitzGerald claims a long record of accomplishments in the job. He says he’s brought Lakewood back from a projected $5 million deficit to a $1.5 million surplus. Crime has dropped by double digits after he increased the police force by 15 percent, he says. That’s despite a 15 percent cut in City Hall’s overall payroll. New nuisance laws have made it easier for the city to go to court against unruly renters and banks that neglect foreclosed properties. The city has bought run-down houses and torn them down.

Opponents may challenge FitzGerald’s reformer credentials by pointing out he opposed Issue 6, which creates the government he now wants to lead. FitzGerald says he publicly supported the idea of a county executive, but felt the Issue 6 charter lacked sufficient checks on the executive’s power. “Concentrating power in an individual without providing the appropriate checks and balances could put us right back in the same situation we’re in now in the corruption scandals,” he says.

FitzGerald’s solution is to create an inspector general or office of public integrity — a professional examiner that the county executive couldn’t fire. “I’m going to appoint somebody that is completely non-political, that is not beholden to me, that I’m not going to be able to hire and fire at will,” he says. “You need to have somebody that has a small but professional staff that can really watch the financial transactions.”

Finally, FitzGerald will have to address the fears that the new charter government might not be responsive enough to minorities’ concerns. Every candidate for the top job will face that question, but, fairly or not, FitzGerald may face more scrutiny as a West Side suburban mayor. Mansfield Frazier’s recent Cool Cleveland column questioned (without naming FitzGerald) why no one of color appeared in his first campaign flyer. (The mayor says he used family photos and a picture from a Lakewood parade.)

Lots of immigrants and African-Americans moved to Lakewood in the 2000s, so I asked FitzGerald what he’s done to make Lakewood welcoming to diversity.

“We’ve tried to be more inclusive in our boards and commissions,” he said. “That’s kind of the gateway to civic participation in a suburb.” He says he has zero tolerance for discriminatory comments in the workplace and holds community meetings in all the city’s neighborhoods.

“I try to talk about race,” he adds. “In Lakewood, in political discourse, we just didn’t really talk about it very much. … I think that’s important to set a tone that it’s not a secret, it’s not anything to have alarm about.” He says he plans to campaign to attract a broad coalition of support, then choose “a leadership team that is reflective of the whole community” if he wins.

“Cleveland is cursed with a bunch of old racial attitudes,” FitzGerald says. “They’re like weeds that grow up, and you just have to confront them whenever you see them.”

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