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Published: Wednesday, 9/22/2010

Lesson from Cuyahoga

In defense of Lucas County government, it's not nearly as bad as Cuyahoga County government. But the official-corruption scandal roiling the county that includes Cleveland offers a cautionary tale for Toledo-area residents of what can happen when needed government reform is delayed, obstructed, or ignored.

Last week, Cuyahoga County's auditor pleaded guilty to 21 corruption charges. Federal prosecutors allege he pocketed more than $1 million in bribes and kickbacks. The auditor's two top aides have quit.

One of the county's three commissioners was indicted on 26 counts. He is accused of exchanging government contracts, jobs, and influence for cash, meals, travel, home furnishings, a discounted Rolex watch, prostitutes, and other personal gifts and favors.

Two Common Pleas judges were indicted as part of the two-year public corruption investigation, one for taking bribes and engaging in a criminal conspiracy with the county auditor, the other for lying to the FBI. Several other county officials and business and union executives also have been charged, and more indictments are expected.

In all, prosecutors describe a pervasive culture of entitlement in Cuyahoga County — a mind-set that says the point of exercising power in county government, from the highest to the lowest positions, is not to do good, but to do well.

In response to the ethical sewer that their county government has become, long-suffering Cuyahoga County voters last year approved a reform plan. Starting in January, an elected county executive and an 11-member county council elected by districts will replace the old board of commissioners and most of the county's row offices. Proponents advocate a similar change in Lucas County.

No one would credibly suggest that Lucas County has corruption issues that even begin to approach those in Cuyahoga County. But there are other problems with county government here — inefficiency, cronyism, money-wasting fragmentation, opacity, insufficient attention to economic development and job creation — that a reform plan similar to Cuyahoga County's would address.

An independent blue-ribbon commission that will study reform options in Lucas County will formally begin operations next week. It plans to offer its agenda for action by mid-2011.

Meanwhile, a petition drive that fell short of gathering enough signatures from county voters to place a Cuyahoga County-style reform plan on this November's ballot — but identified widespread desire for change — remains active for next year. Both efforts deserve encouragement.

There are legitimate arguments against the executive-council form of government enacted in Cuyahoga County and proposed for Lucas County. Critics assert that replacing holders of elected row offices with bureaucrats appointed by the new executive would diminish rather than enhance public accountability.

But many county row officers operate in such obscurity that the case for change still seems compelling. Other potential advantages of reform — greater openness, diversity, and bipartisanship — add to that case.

As in Lucas County, Cuyahoga County officials and their political allies have fought reform every step of the way. No, Lucas County government surely is not as bad as Cuyahoga County's. But instead of taking the chance that one day it might be, county taxpayers would do better to seek proactive reform now.



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