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Published: 5/27/2010

Public hearings set for Lucas County charter plan

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Pete Gerken, president of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners, yesterday set two dates for public hearings on reorganizing Lucas County government, while Commissioner Ben Konop continued his call for putting a specific county charter plan in front of voters this November.

The hearings will be at 6:30 p.m. June 8 in the McMaster Center at the Main Library downtown and June 22 at a time and location to be announced, county Administrator Peter Ujvagi said yesterday.

After that, the commissioners would vote on whether to put a study commission on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The proposal for a study commission drew an impassioned objection from Commissioner

Konop, who said it would lead only to delay.

The discussion about reforming county government occurred during yesterday's regular meeting of the three-person county board of commissioners.

Mr. Konop said his proposal, to adopt the new Cuyahoga County executive and county council format, is a direct route to reorganization and gives voters a clear choice.

Under Mr. Gerken's plan, voters would decide Nov. 2 whether to appoint a charter commission to recommend a new charter, and would elect 15 people to that commission in the same election.

If voters approve a commission, the commission would submit a proposed charter for voter approval the following year.

Changes advocated by the charter commission could range from minor amendments to a full-fledged overhaul replacing some or all of the 11 elected offices, which are three commissioners and auditor, clerk of courts, coroner, engineer, prosecutor, recorder, sheriff, and treasurer.

Mr. Gerken portrayed his plan as the best way to get citizens involved.

But Mr. Konop dismissed Mr. Gerken's approach as designed to kill change and save the jobs of elected county officials.

He contends that the number of signatures required by the Constitution to get on the ballot for the charter commission - 1,429 - is so high that only those who have powerful backing will be able to get elected.

"Unfortunately, this path is a dead end. I assume my colleagues grasp that concept," Mr. Konop said. He said the need for changing Lucas County government to eliminate inefficiencies has been studied repeatedly, with no changes yet made.

"For at least 60 years we've studied this concept. The verdict is in," Mr. Konop said.

Mr. Gerken criticized Mr. Konop for saying ordinary, independent citizens won't have the time and resources to qualify for the ballot. "You take a lot of assumptions that people won't do this," Mr. Gerken said. "Give them a little more credit."

Mr. Konop's plan also requires a large number of signatures, more than 14,000, for it to go on the ballot, but he said it's a goal that could be met if politicians and business groups get together and back the petition drive.

Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said she favors using the University of Toledo's Urban Affairs Center to organize the process and help citizens understand the options.

"The goal here is for county government to be more efficient," Ms. Skeldon Wozniak said, adding that merging city and county government - "unigov" - also should be considered.

"I'm willing to make changes even if it means abolishing my job," Ms. Skeldon Wozniak said.

Time is ticking for Mr. Konop or any other interested party to collect enough signatures for a county charter to land on the Nov. 2 ballot.

As outlined by the Ohio Revised Code and confirmed by Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray's office, signed petitions to place a county charter on the ballot must either be submitted to the board of elections 115 days before the general election or to the board of commissioners 100 days prior to Nov. 2.

In this case, that would mean Mr. Konop would have to craft a charter, collect 14,289 registered voter signatures - equal to 10 percent of votes cast in Lucas County in Ohio's last gubernatorial election - and submit signed petitions to the Lucas County Board of Elections by July 10.

If he wanted to submit them to the county board of commissioners on which he sits, he would need to do so by July 25th. In both cases the due date falls on a weekend, so petitions wouldn't have to be submitted until the following Monday.

Mr. Konop admitted that raising the necessary number of signatures would be a tall order.

"If Commissioner Gerken and Commissioner Skeldon Wozniak and [Lucas County Democratic Party Chairman] Ron Rothenbuhler were supportive of giving the voters the option to choose I think we have a great possibility of success," Mr. Konop said.

The commissioners are bound by law to certify the petitions so long as they contain the requisite amount of valid signatures and are otherwise deemed to satisfy the state's qualifications. The validity of signatures is typically determined by the board of elections.

Last year in Cuyahoga County, reformers who sought and eventually achieved the adoption of a county charter collected about 81,000 signatures and submitted them to the board of elections.

Leaders of Issue 6 - the campaign to adopt a county charter and replace the commissioners and row officers with an elected executive and district council - collected signatures with help from the League of Women Voters and a professional signature collection agency out of California.

Blade Projects Editor Joe Vardon contributed to this report.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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