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Published: Friday, 6/24/2011

Lucas County reorganization plan gets tepid response

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
Keith G. Earley Keith G. Earley
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Some Lucas County officials whose jobs would be abolished or converted to appointed positions under a proposed Lucas County reorganization reacted with caution to the plan Thursday, with several saying it has no advantage over the current arrangement that dates to the 19th century.

The volunteer group Lucas County Citizen Review unveiled an 88-page study that recommends seeking voter approval of a charter to give Lucas County home-rule government.

The charter would eliminate seven of the county's eight elected positions as well as the three-person board of commissioners. In their place would be a single county executive, a nine-member county council, and an elected county prosecutor.

Proponents say it's an opportunity to streamline county government and get behind a visionary, qualified leader.

"The committee believes an important step in reversing our economic decline is the presence of a political and organizational leader who can unite the county and win public support for an operational and strategic plan," the study said.

The Blade was unable to interview three county officials whose jobs would be combined into one appointed post -- Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz, Recorder Jeanine Perry, and Auditor Anita Lopez. Ms. Lopez issued a statement saying she would comply with voters' wishes.

Of those who responded to The Blade's questions, only Clerk of Courts Bernie Quilter said he could support the charter proposal, but with qualifications.

Mr. Quilter said he disagreed with some of its details, including what he thought was an unnecessarily large council, at nine members.

"It doesn't bother me to be appointed," Mr. Quilter said. "Little things can be tweaked before it goes to the voters. I would be out there [campaigning] for it."

Anita Lopez Anita Lopez
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He said government reform is in the air, citing the creation of a government consolidation commission established by Gov. John Kasich.

The government envisioned in the proposed charter calls for an elected county executive who would appoint a chief financial officer, a sheriff, a medical examiner, and an engineer, replacing the elected jobs of sheriff, coroner, treasurer, auditor, recorder, and engineer, as well as the board of commissioners.

The Common Pleas Court judges would appoint the clerk of courts. Only the county prosecutor would continue to be elected.

An elected county council would set the budget, pass ordinances, and confirm the executive's appointments, as well as oversee a watchdog internal auditor.

County Engineer Keith Earley said the reorganization wouldn't affect his office a lot. Ohio law already requires the engineer to be a professional engineer and surveyor. And he said the county is moving in the direction of consolidating some activities of his office with that of the county sanitary engineer, as proposed by the charter.

"It's an interesting report and if it saves money it certainly deserves more study," Mr. Earley said. "When you are elected it does make you more conscious of the public concerns."

Sheriff James Telb also saw little to like immediately. He said the public benefits by having an independent sheriff, rather than one who would be controlled by the county executive.

"I always felt a great deal of responsibility to the citizens because I was elected by the citizens. I always felt that was a good check and balance. It may work with the county executive if they can get good personnel," Sheriff Telb said. He said having nine elected council members, a chief fiscal officer, and an internal auditor raises the potential of a lot of "micromanagers."

"At this point I'm not greatly supportive," the sheriff said, although he said if it leads to more regional government that would be a good outcome.

Lucas County Coroner James Patrick, who has held his office since 1985, said one improvement of the proposed charter over the present law is that it would require the "medical examiner" to be a forensic pathologist in addition to being a physician. Dr. Patrick is a forensic pathologist.

He said a more promising route to reform is to consolidate school districts, police departments, and fire departments in the county.

"I think people ought to have an opportunity to vote on [the charter]," Dr. Patrick said. "If we really wanted to address some of the issues and efficiencies in government I would look toward some sort of consolidation and unification. That's where the opportunity is, and I'm not sure that this [reorganization plan] would take care of it."

Bernie Quilter Bernie Quilter
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County Commissioners Pete Gerken, Tina Skeldon Wozniak, and Carol Contrada all praised the work of the committee and said they looked forward to studying the report and to a period of public debate.

"Bottom line, I think a lot of good will come from evaluation of this document and evaluation of our alternatives. I look forward to the dialogue that will come quickly now," Ms. Skeldon Wozniak said. "I have always been a proponent of change so I like a lot of what I'm hearing."

The study committee set a public meeting for 6:30 p.m. July 26 at Sanger branch library, 3030 West Central Ave.

Members of the study committee came to the commissioners one year ago with their offer to study government reform, and began their work in October.

Olivia Summons, the co-chairman of the advisory committee, said members tried but were unable to finish the study in time to get it on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Instead, the goal is to try to raise enough signatures to place the charter question on the November, 2012, ballot. If the plan is approved, the new county government would be elected in 2014.

Lucas County Republican Party Chairman Jon Stainbrook said an opportunity has been lost in not getting the question on the 2011 ballot.

"I think the voters would have been really receptive to it now. I don't know if they're going to be as interested in it in 2012," Mr. Stainbrook said. He said he thought voters would embrace the plan because one party currently dominates the county's office. Eleven county offices, not including the judges, are held by Democrats.

Lucas County Democratic Chairman Ron Rothenbuhler said he would consider the plan with an open mind.

"I'm not going to find fault with it until I know more about it," Mr. Rothenbuhler said. He said Cuyahoga County is having problems implementing its charter, which voters approved in 2009.

"I'm opposed to moving fast with any plan. Maybe we learn from some of the mistakes that are happening here," Mr. Rothenbuhler said.

Former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, who helped usher in a similar government reorganization for the city of Toledo in 1993, said the plan deserves serious consideration.

"From what I've read and heard about it, I think community leaders need to look very closely, very analytically at the plan," he said. "Some very skilled local government people were on the committee. At first glance it seems to me that county government would benefit by the approach that was taken back in 1993."

Contract Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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