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Published: Wednesday, 9/15/2010

County reform gets life

Regrettably, Lucas County voters won't get the chance this year to change their money-wasting, 19th-century county government. Opposition to a reform-oriented ballot plan by self-perpetuating politicians and interest groups, and apathy in the local business community, saw to that.

Efforts continue to offer local voters, perhaps next year, the same kind of reform proposal that Cuyahoga County voters have approved. Meanwhile, a separate initiative also seeks to lay a foundation for the meaningful change that county government needs and taxpayers deserve.

Olivia Summons and Thomas Killam, veterans of the late Corporation for Effective Government, are co-chairmen of what they call a “citizen review” of county government. They have recruited a high-powered advisory panel of community leaders.

Thursday, Ms. Summons and Mr. Killam will issue a formal call for local volunteers to join the review's study groups. They seek experts in public administration, law, accounting and finance, and urban planning.

The co-chairmen say the study will examine improvements to Lucas County government's structure, organization, operations, and finances. It will look at opportunities for cooperation between the county and other governments in the region.

It will analyze reform efforts across the country, such as the “unigov” model of city-county consolidation. It will determine which county services can be eliminated or provided more cost-effectively.

If that seems too wonkish, the review will emphasize how county reform can enhance economic development and job growth. As Lucas County endures a high unemployment rate, a shrunken tax base, and greater demands on limited sources of public money, that focus will be vital.

After it kicks off Oct. 1, the study process will take six to nine months. Then, Ms. Summons says, the panel will make recommendations to the county board of commissioners.

Mr. Killam says the study leaders begin with no particular outcome in mind. We continue to believe the best alternative is replacement of the board of commissioners and most county row offices by an elected county executive and a county council elected by district. But other options the study panel identifies also will merit consideration — provided, of course, that it does not merely affirm the status quo or advocate cosmetic change.

County commissioners support the volunteer study. But Ms. Summons is adamant that incumbent county officials will have no role in the review process other than supplying data.

That's essential, given efforts by elected officials, notably b oard President Pete Gerken, to kill this year's ballot campaign by proposing a study instead — effectively an excuse to do nothing. The grass-roots review will succeed only to the extent that it remains nonpartisan, objective, and fiercely independent of potential or actual conflicts of interest.

The co-chairmen estimate the study will cost $25,000 to $35,000. Along with in-kind support from the University of Toledo, the review already is attracting substantial financial help from local businesses — a contrast to their yawning disinterest in this year's ballot proposal.

Lucas County government doesn't work and must change. It is fragmented, duplicative, and prone to cronyism. It needs to become more open and diverse. This year's reform campaign, while it failed, identified broad voter demand for major change.

The leaders of the study say that, done right, it could help ensure northwest Ohio's prosperity and high quality of life for the next century. That's a reason to wish the effort success.



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