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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2003

Official puts a face on government

Judging by gas pumps around Cleveland, Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo is like Rodney Dangerfield.

He gets no respect.

People gouge out his eyes, rip his head off, blacken his teeth, and worse.

Well, not his eyes and teeth, but the eyes and teeth in pictures of him that can be found on those ubiquitous government stickers that guarantee to consumers that every gas pump and electronic scanner in the county has been inspected for accuracy.

Mr. Russo, a Democrat elected in 1998, added his picture to the official stickers soon after taking office, said Destin Ramsey, an assistant. Fran Lesser, director of the County Auditors Association of Ohio, said Mr. Russo is the only auditor she has ever heard of to put his face on the stickers, which are mandated by state law and are paid for with taxpayer dollars.

At one BP station in Independence, his picture on nine of the 10 pumps had been defaced.

Stickers at other stations in the area had similar damage. Some were even torn off altogether. One had a yellow smiley face stuck right over Mr. Russo's mug.

No respect.

“We've seen horns. We've seen eyes gouged out. We have seen everything that could possibly be done to a seal,” Mr. Ramsey said, adding that his boss has grown some thick skin.

Mr. Russo was unavailable for comment.

“It doesn't hurt him personally,” his assistant said. “He is a politician, and you will have that kind of thing happen. He has disengaged at this point.”

He said two complaints have been filed with the auditor in the last two years, and national chain stores have balked at allowing the stickers because of his photo.

People on the street seem to have found their own ways of dealing with the stickers. Why bother phoning in a complaint when you can express your opinion on the sticker itself? It's not a voodoo doll, but maybe the next best thing for disgruntled citizens.

“These are politicians, and they will get you any way they can,” said lawyer Robin Peters of Independence, as he observed the sticker while filling up his tank. “They have to put the stickers on there by law, but to put your picture on it - I don't like it.”

Not far away, bank employee Lorrie Harper was operating another pump.

“I think its just Cleveland politics. I think it's very egotistical, but it's politics,” she said.

At another station off I-480 in the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn, financial planner Larry Mihevic said that the stickers are probably more of a political negative than a positive.

“You can see what people are doing to them. What kind of message does that send?” he asked. “It's not helpful. Why do we care that it's Frank Russo doing the inspection, just so the inspection gets done? It seems like he's combining some marketing with his official duties. I think it detracts.”

Mr. Ramsey emphasized that the cost of the sticker did not increase with the addition of the picture. “That was quite a treat to us,” he said.

Such a treat that a whole new edition of the stickers is now hitting scanners and gas pumps around the county. For more impact, they have changed the color scheme from red, white, and blue, to orange and black.

And this time, they used a newer picture that, Mr. Ramsey said, “has created quite a buzz” because the updated photo makes the auditor look significantly older. Now in his 50s, the old sticker had melted years - maybe decades - off his appearance. “People are getting a kick out of it,” Mr. Ramsey said.

Maybe that's because of the new photo, or maybe its because the new stickers will give people something to do while the tank is filling.

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Jerry Springer, the controversial syndicated talk show host from Cincinnati who is testing the waters for a run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican George Voinovich, criticized his own Democratic Party leaders during a speech last week at Bowling Green State University.

“The Democratic Party has failed, because we haven't offered an alternative [to Republicans in power in Washington]. All we have offered is opposition. We can never be as good a Republican as Republicans,” the former Cincinnati mayor said. “They are better golfers than we could ever be.”

Mr. Springer appears to be taking a serious look at returning to politics. He may announce plans to tee it up in the Senate race as early as this summer.



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