It took a major political scandal to convince Cuyahoga County voters to accept a charter form of county government. Minus such a scandal here, a plan to switch Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties to charter governments will probably collect dust.
After hearing Cuyahoga Executive Ed Fitzgerald, now a leading candidate to receive the Democratic nomination for governor, describe the new government, it seems unfortunate that the three local counties are missing similar reform opportunities. Increased services and the chance to tackle the biggest needs could be the result of converting Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana to charter governments.
On July 28, 2008, about 200 FBI and IRS agents raided Cuyahoga government offices, elected officials' homes and private businesses and their owners' homes. The result was charges against 60 people, many of whom already served prison time and others whose trials are ongoing or upcoming.
Those convicted include former Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, sentenced to 28 years in prison on 37 counts including bribery, conspiracy, extortion and racketeering; and former Auditor Frank Russo, sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison on 21 counts of racketeering, conspiracy and bribery.
Subsequently, Cuyahoga voters approved a charter government. Three commissioners, auditor, coroner, clerk of courts, highway engineer, recorder, sheriff and treasurer are no longer elected. Instead, one executive, a county council, judges and the prosecutor are elected. The executive then hires to fill the other positions.
Fitzgerald, who recently spent time with the Tribune Chronicle, said he's convinced voters would not have approved of the charter if not for the scandal. And he's quick to point out that a charter does nothing to guarantee there won't be corruption or even produce better results than the existing structure.
However, here are some improvements Fitzgerald was able to make:
Some departments are 40 percent smaller.
The county government overall is 10 percent smaller.
The county did not cut any services and added some services.
The sheriff's department has increased the number of deputies.
Fitzgerald conducted national searches and increased the criteria to hold jobs that were previously elected positions. The auditor is from the Columbus area and the coroner is from Rhode Island.
For just one anecdote about saving taxpayer money, the cost of re-appraising property went from $21 million to $13 million.
Department heads and their workers have no incentive to spend job time on re-election campaigns. More time is focused on serving taxpayers.
There are a few counties, including Lucas where Toledo is the seat and Montgomery where Dayton is the seat, considering charters. Those pushing in Lucas failed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot. Another effort is underway. Montgomery seems more serious about changing governments.
The last intense discussion here was in 2008 when a plan to reform Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana was about to launch in earnest. However, the Great Recession of 2009 dried up funding that would be needed for an adequate campaign.
Though charter proposals, a plan for gathering signatures and a campaign strategy already exist, the idea has yet to resurface. Part of that is because the tri-county area lacks widespread, exposed corruption, which is a good thing, and because budget constraints forced the governments to become more efficient, which is also a good thing.
But so much more could be accomplished. Success stories in Summit County in Ohio and Allegheny County in Pennsylvania make it clear that one day - hopefully soon - the local charter proposals should resurface.