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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2010

'Reform' is a power grab in disguise


Those who claim the mantle of "reform" propose that we can achieve more accountable, more unified county government if only we will drastically alter its current form. It is unfortunate that The Blade has chosen to join this chorus from the bleachers.

For nearly a century and a half, the Ohio General Assembly has defined and improved county functions. The legislature has progressively changed state law affecting counties as circumstances have warranted.

County government benefits from the checks and balances provided by independent elected officials who are directly responsible to voters. The contrast with other forms of government is compelling. An independent auditor or prosecutor does not have to appease or cater to politicians who might have the power to appoint holders of those row offices under a county charter.

Among Ohio's 88 counties, 86 have yet to discover the supposed benefits of a charter. Cuya-hoga County's recent decision to embrace charter government was the direct result of corruption allegations that citizens apparently were unable to correct by voting out the offending officials.

Before Lucas County voters assume that a county charter is desirable, they would do well to wait and observe Cuyahoga's experience. So far it has been anything but an orderly, inexpensive process. The plethora of candidates for the new, expanded county council there includes a convicted murderer.

Calls for a bigger, more powerful county government are based on a fundamental misdiagnosis. County government is limited by definition. It was never intended to be a second-tier super-government, rivaling cities, villages, and townships to provide local services.

As a citizen, would you expect to hear back sooner from your village council member, your small-town mayor, your township trustee, or a Lucas County commissioner? Size of constituency alone dictates the answer.

In addition to replacing independent elected officials with high-priced appointed bureaucrats, the big-government crowd wants a county council that would be larger than the current commission (how does a super-city council appeal to you?) and would be elected by a voting method so cumbersome that neither frugality nor public understanding would accompany it.

The inevitable result of a county home-rule charter would be a new layer of more expensive government, adding to the burden of taxpayers. An ordinance-passing, regulation-creating county council would hurt business and compete unnecessarily with local governments that know the value of real accountability.

The American experiment predates the founding in the 1850s of reformer-ridiculed county government. It intentionally has a separation of powers and institutional checks and balances.

Like county government, it is not perfect. No human institution is - but real democracy is better than anything else.

The charter crowd is trying to play with the county structure to the detriment of taxpayers. The only beneficiaries would be a few politicians and professional bureaucrats who have decided that their personal accumulation of power is good for the rest of us.

Dusty Rhodes is auditor of Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati. He is chairman of the County Auditors' Association of Ohio's Committee to Preserve and Protect Limited County Government.

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