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Published: 5/5/2010

Reform or status quo?

IF LUCAS County is finally to get a professional, 21st-century government, local Democratic leaders will have to put the needs of taxpayers ahead of their perpetuation of an inefficient, archaic system that nevertheless benefits them politically. Whether they make that choice or resist it tooth and nail will prove instructive.

Democrats dominate county government, both its board of commissioners and its elected row offices, including sheriff, prosecutor, auditor, treasurer, and recorder. That control gives the party a substantial base of political power. The fact that county government doesn't work well - that many of its operations are redundant, fragmented, and opaque to the citizens it ostensibly serves - doesn't seem to be a consideration.

It should be. The commission system messily commingles executive and legislative powers. It discourages not only checks and balances but also fresh ideas for doing county business better. The lack of effective budget coordination and cooperation among the commission, row offices, and independent county agencies wastes tax money to the detriment of essential services and economic growth.

The obscurity of many county row offices hampers public accountability. It's doubtful that many Lucas County residents could identify the holders of all these offices, even if they voted for the current occupants. And since most of these offices perform administrative duties rather than make policy, they should be held by professional appointees rather than politicians.

It's past time for the county to consider options for government reform. Possibilities include the kind of executive-council system that Cuyahoga (Cleveland) and Summit (Akron) counties have enacted, unified regional government ("unigov"), or some other option entirely. It's less important to choose one option immediately than it is to start a serious community dialog now about the need for change.

But if Democratic powers work to stifle that discussion, it likely won't get off the ground. A report this week in The Blade about Cuyahoga County's experience with enacting a new charter makes the point.

Cuyahoga's charter replaces its old commission and nearly all row offices with an elected executive (read: county mayor) who has the power to make key appointments and a council whose members are elected by district. Advocates argue credibly that both features enhance accountability and improve representation.

The county's Democratic establishment fought the reform proposal, sponsoring an alternative plan as a stalling tactic. Only when enough independent-minded Democrats joined local Republicans and business and civic leaders to promote the ballot plan effectively did it succeed.

Similarly, leading Lucas County Democrats say the commission system works just fine and should be left alone. GOP officials in Lucas County are studying whether to try to place a reform proposal before voters as early as this year. A new county council whose members were elected by district rather than countywide would give Republicans a greater opportunity to win county offices.

But that's not the point of reform, although a functioning two-party system would benefit all Lucas County voters. In any event, that's not likely to occur until the county Republican Party resolves its pointless internal squabbles and makes clear it won't return to the bad old days that preceded its current leadership.

Rather, the object of reform is to give Lucas County taxpayers the effective government they deserve. A majority of the three-member county commission could place a reform plan on the ballot. Don't hold your breath.

A grass-roots petition drive could accomplish the same goal, but that would be only the first step. Genuine reform of Lucas County government will require the support of all segments of the county - including Democrats who are looking for something more than their next office.



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