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Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Published: 4/27/2010

Fix county government

TAXPAYERS in Lucas County deserve a government that is more professional, more efficient, and far less politicized. It's time to explore alternatives to the antiquated commission system, especially the creation of an elected county executive.

County government here is not overtly corrupt as it is in, say, Cuyahoga County. But it still works badly. The 19th-century commission structure invests both executive and legislative authority in the three-member board of commissioners, preventing the operation of the kinds of checks and balances that are standard at other levels of government.

The most recent example of this pernicious imbalance is Commissioner President Pete Gerken's effort to substitute his political judgment of how the county dog pound should run for the professional expertise of the county's new dog warden, Julie Lyle. Mr. Gerken would maintain the discredited kill-'em-first policy of Ms. Lyle's predecessor, Tom Skeldon.

Such big-footing is not an aberration. During the past four years, Mr. Gerken and Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak routinely have outvoted and ignored their colleague, Ben Kon-

op. It isn't a partisan issue, because all of the commissioners are Democrats. But the frustration created by the commission majority's reflexive resistance to Mr. Konop's proposals for change contributed to his decision not to seek re-election this year.

The board of commissioners isn't the only problem with Lucas County government. The holders of elected county row offices exercise mostly unchecked spending and staffing authority, obstructing efforts to coordinate countywide budget policy with the commission. Even more obscure independent county agencies operate as isolated fiefdoms with their own pots of taxpayer money as well.

That produces wasteful duplication and fragmentation in such vital areas as economic development and public safety. Other services, such as recreation, have gotten caught in the crossfire. Because most county row offices are more administrative than policy-making, there is no reason they should be held by elected politicians rather than professional appointees.

A report this week in The Blade described the effects of the decision last year by voters in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, to scrap their county commission system. Voters were fed up with the corruption that seemed endemic to Cuyahoga's government - bribery, kickbacks, cronyism. But the massive reforms they approved are likely to have broader implications in years to come.

Starting next year, an elected county executive - whose duties will be similar to those of a city mayor - and an 11-member council, elected by district rather than at large, will replace Cuyahoga's old commission. Elected officials will be subject to recall, something Lucas County voters can't do.

Under the new county charter, row offices other than the Cuyahoga County prosecutor no longer will be elected. The executive will appoint professionals to handle their duties.

Proponents of charter reform insist that Cuyahoga's new system of government will promote long-term economic development, creating jobs and tax revenue. The new charter requires specific development efforts. Although the claims of improved competitiveness and cost savings include a degree of predictable hyperbole, they deserve full examination by Lucas County taxpayers.

The experiment with executive government is most pronounced in Summit County, including Akron, which adopted its system in 1979. Critics assert that Summit's system has proved no more efficient or innovative than the commission structure.

They argue that the executive-council system can create the same sort of unproductive turf wars that arise between city mayors and councils. They note that the system does not override municipal home rule. Those caveats too warrant close scrutiny.

The review shouldn't stop there. As population shifts in northwest Ohio affect the distribution of local tax revenues and public employment, it's also time to examine a system of regional government that could even cross county lines.

"Unigov" might be too visionary a proposal for local voters to embrace all at once. But effective reform of Lucas County government would be a good transitional step.

As voters determined in Cuyahoga County, merely changing the faces in Lucas County offices isn't sufficient. The structure of county government needs fundamental reform.

A Chicago alderman famously said long ago that his city "ain't ready for reform." Lucas County government is ripe for reform. But voters and taxpayers here, like their counterparts in Cuyahoga County, will need to stand up to powerfully entrenched political interests to make that happen.



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