Tuesday, Oct 24, 2017
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Cuyahoga boasts strongest ethics policy of Ohio's 87 other counties

CLEVELAND -- Cuyahoga County, which is still adjusting to a new charter government, has the strongest ethics policy in the state and one of the strongest in the country, several officials involved in creating the new system said Wednesday.

The county's first elected executive, Ed Fitzgerald, and Dave Greenspan, a city council member who chaired the ethics committee that implemented the ethics law last year, were speakers at a program put on by the Society of Professional Journalists at the Cleveland City Club.

Mr. Fitzgerald, a Democrat who was elected in 2010, said one of his first acts was to appoint an inspector general to investigate misconduct in county government.

The office is held by former assistant federal prosecutor Nailah Byrd, who has a staff of five and an annual budget of about $1 million. Her office is backed by an ethics ordinance that was passed by the county council in April.

Among its rules, the ethics policy prohibits county employees from contributing to the campaigns of county elected officials, and it protects county employees under a "whistleblower" provision.

"We have I think the most comprehensive ethics code in the state and I think one of the strongest in the entire country," Mr. Fitzgerald said. As evidence that the county government is taking a stricter view of employee behavior, he said there were twice as many employees disciplined in 2011 as in 2010, even with fewer employees on the payroll.

Mr. Fitzgerald, and other speakers who followed him, said so far the inspector general's office can be dissolved by council. He said he will support an effort to amend the charter to set up the inspector general as an independent county official.

Linda Mayer, who chaired the ethics work group of the county's Transition Advisory Council during the conversion of Cuyahoga County from a "row office" government like Lucas County's to a charter county with an elected executive and elected 11-member council, also praised the ethics ordinance and the inspector general ordinance.

"This is the toughest in the state, partly because no local governments have their own ethics ordinances. They all rely on the state ethics policy," Ms. Mayer said.

Ms. Mayer said the ethics policy does a good job of spelling out prohibited conduct, having "tools of transparency," such as disclosure requirements and registries, and has enforcement procedures. She said the ethics transition group favored an independent ethics board.

Mr. Fitzgerald described the change in county government in glowing terms. He portrayed the previous government as "opaque," in which people were hired primarily based on who they knew or were related to. He said county government was like a club, and that county officials did not have serious policy positions.

"The people didn't know why the county reached the decisions that it did. The county was overloaded with patronage," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

He said there was an expectation that county employees would be involved in partisan activity, which is no longer permitted.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he found less corruption than what he expected, and he was surprised not to see a rush of people interested in working for the county after the establishment of new merit procedures that, he said, prohibit the kind of nepotism that used to be the rule.

Cuyahoga County voters adopted the county charter in 2009 following a corruption scandal involving former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, who is on trial in U.S. District Court in Akron, and former county Auditor Frank Russo, who has pleaded guilty and faces more than 20 years in prison.

The new charter -- the second to be adopted in Ohio -- abolished the elected offices of county commissioner, auditor, clerk of courts, coroner, engineer, recorder, sheriff, and treasurer. They were replaced with a single county executive and an 11-member county council, which has eight Democrats and three Republicans. Only the elected prosecutor remained.

Since then, attempts have been made to enact a similar charter in Lucas County. A volunteer group calling itself Lucas County Citizen Review is meeting with local governments in preparation for a signature campaign to place a charter proposal on the ballot in Lucas County in November.

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

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