To her credit, Lucas County Commissioner Sandy Isenberg, was willing to make a statement not often heard from veteran politicians. “I was wrong,” she said, as she reversed her decision to begin drawing a pension in addition to her salary if she is re-elected,
Her statement cuts to the heart of the issue: “It is wrong for an elected official to retire and keep working at the same job.” We would add that it is wrong for the Ohio General Assembly to allow that temptation to be dangled before public officials. It is time to end the weaseling in Columbus. Whatever the lawmakers permit for appointive officials or professionally certified individuals such as teachers, the pension statutes should be changed to make sure that no elected official can take both a pension and a salary from an office from which he or she retired.
The situation is exacerbated in counties such as Lucas, where effective political alternatives simply do not exist and have not existed for years. Power does corrupt, which is the best reason we know of for a strong two-party system in any political jurisdiction.
Commissioner Isenberg could change her mind after the election, it has been pointed out. But our belief is that she has arrived at this decision after some serious soul-searching, and that voters can be assured that she will not seek both a retirement income and her regular salary if she wins in November.
Ms. Isenberg has been a devoted public servant, although she has been somewhat timid in the face of opposition. She says she looks forward to “a substantive debate on the serious issues facing our county, and who is the best-qualified person to tackle them.” She is right in that respect, and voters may choose to overlook the pension flap and reward her for her years of service.
As to whether there will be such a debate, however, the jury is still out. Dock Treece, a Republican who could not even get elected trustee in Sylvania Township, has withdrawn, offering as a reason his desire to make more money in private life.
Bernadette Noe, chairwoman of the county Republican Party, has listed several possible candidates, including Toledo City Council members George Sarantou and Rob Ludeman; Susan Meek, Springfield Township trustee; former Toledo Mayor Donna Owens; Maggie Thurber, clerk of Toledo Municipal Court, and education consultant Alison Perz.
While it is far from certain that the GOP has a viable candidate waiting in the wings to wage a strong campaign against Ms. Isenberg, voters should remember that defeating an entrenched county incumbent is not impossible. Republican Al Hawkins, a retired Libbey-Owens-Ford Co. executive, did it to Francis Szollosi, a two-term Democratic commissioner, back in 1984.
Since it is fair to assume that the double-dipping issue will not go away, and that Ms. Isenberg is now somewhat more vulnerable than she was before, all the Republicans have to do is raise some seed money to get the campaign started.
That leaves Probate Judge Jack Puffenberger as the only remaining elected official on the November ballot who has filed notice of his intent to begin drawing a pension after the election. Unfortunately, he is unopposed in November. It does not help that he offers the lame excuse that if the option to double-dip were not available, “I would never have sought re-election in the first place.”
It is unhealthy for any democratic system when those who govern expect and base their decisions on the availability of generous salaries, augmented by pensions, for the same position. It is difficult to see how they can empathize with the plight of many of their constituents who are forced to live with economic insecurity, especially in times of recession. They have no guarantee of a job, much less a pension.
Judge Puffenberger's defiance points to the need for political parties to challenge every incumbent, including judges. Too often, the parties have washed each other's hands for the benefit of incumbents. Even the Lucas County GOP, enfeebled as it is, should not give any judicial candidate a free ride.
Nothing hardens the arteries of a democratic system of government faster than a failure by the opposition party to hold every incumbent accountable for his record and actions in office.
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