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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2010

Move on county reform

The blueprint proposed by Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop to reform county government needs a few tweaks, especially in the way it draws district lines for the plan's new legislative body. But the county charter Mr. Konop recommends would provide a solid enough foundation for needed change that it deserves a place on the November ballot.

Critics of Mr. Konop's plan - mostly county officeholders whose jobs would be threatened by reform, and their political allies - would rather talk the proposal to death than enable voters to consider it this year. The stakes, for both job-creating economic development and taxpayer protection, are too urgent for that.

Mr. Konop's proposal would replace the three-member county commission and all but one of the county's eight row officers with an elected executive and 11-member council elected by district. It is modeled on a charter Cuyahoga County voters approved last year, which takes effect in 2011. It also draws on Summit County's experience with charter government.

In an essay on the next page, Mr. Konop argues plausibly that reform would stimulate economic growth by making that goal the focus of the new county executive. He also asserts that the changes he seeks would make county government more efficient, accountable, progressive, and representative of Lucas County residents - all important values.

Commission President Pete Gerken objects to what he calls the "cut and paste" nature of Mr. Konop's proposal, claiming it does not properly account for differences between Lucas and Cuyahoga counties. Mr. Gerken surely is welcome to pursue changes to the draft charter.

Instead, though, he proposes a commission to "study" county reform. Such commissions failed in Cuyahoga and Summit counties, and are typically prescriptions for inaction.

Some elements of the reform plan demand re-examination. The variation in population of the proposed council districts - from less than 35,000 in a largely suburban district to more than 48,000 in a Toledo district - is high.

That variation may not be as great now as it appears, since the district boundaries are based on 2000 Census figures. Since then, the city has lost population and the suburbs have gained. Still, an effort to achieve greater equality of population would seem warranted even before 2010 Census figures become available.

But the district demographics are less important than maintaining the momentum for change. The Blade is examining county government reforms in other parts of the state and country that offer useful, or cautionary, lessons to Lucas County.

In an article today, The Blade reports on two big New Jersey counties that shifted from a county government structure similar to Lucas County's current setup to an executive-council format.

Elected officials in those counties agree that the change has brought greater efficiency and regional cooperation, and less opportunity to evade public accountability within a morass of bureaucratic redundancy and fragmentation typical of the commission system. Although they concede that the executive system is not immune to corruption or complaints about overspending, they argue that an honest, competent executive can respond to such problems effectively.

In Maryland's Baltimore County, The Blade reports, the county executive has worked with private businesses to create 15,000 jobs, attract hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, and revive sagging neighborhoods. Surely that model is attractive, and applicable, to Lucas County.

The reform timetable is tight. Mr. Konop says he wants to put his proposal into final form by mid-month, so voters can start signing petitions to get it on the Nov. 2 ballot. Reform proponents would have to submit more than 14,000 valid signatures of voters by late July.

All the more reason for citizens and groups - business, political, community, academic - that claim to want more effective local government to get behind the reform effort now. If they don't, they won't forfeit their right to complain about county government later, but those complaints will sound awfully hollow.

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