Closing Thoughts II


It’s helpful to think of state Issues 2 and 3 and Cuyahoga County Issue 6 as being about the attempt to buy democracy away from the voters. They seem to be about one thing (livestock standards and food safety, casinos, government reform) but they’re really about something else: a jockey for power and/or profit.

I realize I haven’t written as much as I should have about Issue 6 (and Issue 5, which is sort of a side issue, but not really). As I’ve delved deeper and deeper into the background of county reform – especially how Summit County moved to a charter form of government, what’s in their charter and why — it’s only gotten more difficult to formulate my thoughts. I’ve also learned more about the genesis of the Cleveland charter-reform project, wandering in the morass of the Plain Dealer’s unhelpful coverage, where essential facts are available but deeply buried so as not to contradict their spin.

It seems to me two types of people support Issue 6 — those who believe corporate power can be trusted more than citizens’ and those who are under-informed — mostly the latter. It’s understandable if regrettable. Little objective information is available about county government reform and the charter process; I had to dig. And the two main arguments being offered to the public in support of Issue 6 aren’t accurate: that there’s been endless discussion of county reform and now we just have to do it (never mind where the particular proposal came from or what it includes — just do “something”) and that it will clean up corruption —which it doesn’t address and which its background and structure seem to actually encourage.

I wish every voter could read a 32-page article by the late Frank J. Kendrick, a former professor of political science and urban development at the University of Akron. (It’s not online unfortunately). This scholarly article describes how charter reform came about in Summit County — which, by contrast, highlights what’s wrong with how Issue 6 was formulated, how it is being campaigned for and how challenging it would be if it is passed to produce an efficient transition — or a workable new government structure.

(A little background for those who don’t know: The structure of county government is set up by the state of Ohio. However, the state constitution also allows counties to write their own charters providing for a different system. So far, only Summit County has done so, in 1979, with generally good results, although it has continued to have sporadic problems with corruption as well).

In the 1970s, Summit County had charter commissions — what is being proposed by Issue 5 — on the ballot three times. Twice they were elected and created charters, which were not accepted by the voters. The third time, in 1978, the voters rejected the commission. After that defeat, a number of civic groups met to analyze what was going on and to learn from their losses what they needed to do to create a new and more effective form of government.

Cuyahoga has never gone through this process. It has never put the issue to voters or had the “discussion” of a full-fledged campaign. Issue 6 proponents are holding up the 1995 Barber commission, the Abbott Commission of last year (which made a proposal to the legislature it didn’t act on) and a handful of quickly aborted efforts by the Republican Party to impose a charter on the public. So no — no discussion, no campaigns, no education, no process. Just a finished charter produced out of thin air by a self-appointed group last winter. In the spring, they invited representatives of various constituencies and stakeholders into the process, reportedly more to approve of or tinker with the finished work than to participate in the actual creation of a charter. The PD has painted some of these people as obstructionists for not agreeing to rubber stamp a process over which they had little control, while depicting the ones who fell in line as heroes.

Summit County avoided that by bringing all the stakeholders in to produce the charter. Although it decided against trying to elect another charter commission, it held neighborhood meetings, it engaged citizen groups, it involved both labor and business, it recognized the importance of having Akron — with half the county’s population — on board, as well as the governing officials of all the county’s cities and townships in order to avoid not only opposition but endless deadlocks and conflicts once a new county government was formed. It had the support of its congressperson and its state legislators; the heads of both political parties were involved.

Summit ultimately decided on a “moderate” charter, which did not eliminate the elected offices, precisely to make sure the new government was widely supported (It currently elected all the same functions as Cuyahoga except coroner). It also provided spots on the newly created county council for the sitting county commissioners. All three ran for county executive, and one of them was elected. Summit’s county reform was not done at the expense of elected officials; it did not exclude most constituencies from the writing of the charter. It streamlined county government without unnecessarily antagonizing anyone.

As a result, the campaign was a consensus effort without strong opposition. The signatures needed to put it on the ballot were gathered by volunteers, mostly from the League of Women Voters. By contrast, Cuyahoga’s Issue 6 spent almost $100, 000 to hire a professional, out-of-state company to gather its signatures with paid petitioners — which makes its boasts about the number of signatures it got seem less impressive.

In Cuyahoga County, a small group decided on a radical charter that upended current county government and tossed out all current county officeholders, bad and good — with the exception of the one who was involved in launching the process, an exception that virtually invites corruption. (Summit purposely involved none of the current elected county officials, probably to avoid just such a conflict of interest). Naturally, when a self-appointed group decides to fire people from jobs that many of them are doing well, there’s going to be resistance. In addition, the issue has little support from Cleveland officials and none from its congressional representatives. It’s an imposed government, without consent of most major stakeholders.

So how does Issue 5 fit in? Issue 5 begins the process where Summit started and where Cuyahoga should have started. But it’s possible that the process was already too contentious and the discussion too poisoned by conflation with overblown claims of corruption in the current system to have that process now. Some of the better informed people I’ve talked to have suggested that county reform needs to be done when cooler heads prevail and the current corruption investigations have run their course, and we see who is actually guilty and who is not.

Of course, the PD’s irresponsible coverage has ramped up outrage at ALL sitting officials, implying anyone currently in office is guilty of something. In fact, that’s bullshit. Another fact: The system was already on its way to moving Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo along. It’s unlikely either will be in office much longer, no matter what happens. What the PD is doing is probably intended to make it difficult for current officeholders to have a future role. See how they tried to block reform! It’s kind of tipping its hand in little comments scattered around that imply it will smear anyone who supported Issue 5 (which is most county Democrats, other than a handful of opportunists and Dale Miller) as supporting corruption by association. While Issue 5 is admittedly a response to issue 6, the PD has doggedly ascribed only the worst motivations to Issue 5 supporters — even though that’s the actual fair, legal process of writing a charter — and only the loftiest motivations to the antidemocratic forces — a very narrow sliver of the community’s interests — who conceived and supported Issue 6.

That leads to another concern. If Issue 6 passes, can the PD actually function as a watchdog to what’s almost certain to be a chaotic and conflict-ridden process of creating a new government? Or will they just assume that anyone who supported Issue 6 is on the side of angels and anyone who supported Issue 5 obviously has ulterior, sour-grapes motives? Does the paper have too much invested in making Issue 6 look like the solution to all the county’s problems to do any hard-nosed reporting on the fallout? I guess we’ll see. I wish I were more optimistic, but the more you know, the less optimistic you get.