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Published: 6/9/2010

Wozniak proposes third county reform plan

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
O'Brien O'Brien
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak used the opportunity of a public hearing on county government reorganization Tuesday night to offer a third way of letting citizens have their say.

With her colleague Ben Konop calling for a specific charter to be put on the ballot in November, and the other, Pete Gerken, calling for a charter study commission that some say would be prone to being handpicked by political bosses, Ms. Wozniak suggested a process that she said would let citizen, business, and labor groups propose a new charter.

But whether that charter should usher in big changes or just nibble around the edges was not clear.

The proposal was made during a meeting in the downtown library featuring Kevin O'Brien, director of the Center for Public Management at Cleveland State University, who had been involved in efforts to modernize Cuyahoga County government.

Mr. O'Brien took no position on what form Lucas County reorganization should take.

He emphasized the repeated attempts at reform in Cuyahoga, going back to the 1930s, before last year's successful adoption of an elected county executive-county council charter.

Mr. Gerken and Mr. Konop - both Democrats, like Ms. Wozniak - are backing rival charter adoption plans.

Mr. Gerken wants to elect a 15-member commission to propose a charter that would be up for a vote in November, 2011.

Mr. Konop's plan would let Lucas County residents vote this November on a charter that is almost identical to that of Cuyahoga County.

Ms. Wozniak didn't say exactly how her citizen group would be convened, but said she would use the Urban Affairs Center at the University of Toledo and the Cleveland State center to bring people together.

She said it wouldn't take any longer than either Mr. Gerken's or Mr. Konop's plans, since neither one would take effect until January, 2013, anyway.

"It would give the citizens, business, and labor unions time to draft how they want county government to be for the future," Ms. Wozniak said.

Mr. Gerken expressed interest in the plan, as did Mr. Konop. However, Mr. Konop said his plan provides for the ultimate citizen input: a yea or nay at the ballot box.

Most of the meeting featured Mr. O'Brien's detailed account of how Cuyahoga County finally ended decades of debate and ushered in a home-rule county government.

In his talk, Mr. O'Brien said Cuyahoga County's charter benefited from a high level of public dialogue, for which he credited in part nearly daily coverage by The Plain Dealer newspaper. He said holding the discussions in public, the abundant data that was published, and the civil tone that characterized the debate kept voters engaged.

"I thought there'd be a lot more name-calling, but the open dialogue really sold the whole process," Mr. O'Brien said.

He also indicated that the early phases did not engage the public.

"Last May and June it was a pretty lonely thing thinking that you were going to put together a group to fight for a county charter for Cuyahoga County and going to be able to overcome the opposition of county officials and some local government officials," Mr. O'Brien said.

That changed by July and August, he said.

He said the allegations of corruption against Cuyahoga County officials played a part in motivating the public, as did reports of inefficiency in the way county government operated.

Mr. Gerken said Lucas County government has adopted efficiencies, and he said the large number of township officials and local fire departments are factors that are different in Lucas County than in Cuyahoga County.

Mr. Konop's proposal to put a question on the November ballot came in for a strongly worded critique by leaders of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union.

Steve Kowalik, staff representative of Ohio Council 8, which represents about 1,500 county employees, said county executive-council government is less representative than the current government because all the key administrators would be picked by one person rather than by the voters.

"I heard Commissioner Konop talk many times about a 'good ol' boy network' in Lucas County. This county executive plan opens up the door for just that - cronyism," Mr. Kowalik said.

His colleague, Sally Powless, Council 8's regional director, said collective bargaining is better done with officeholders who are close to the work of the employees, rather than one centralized county official.

"We want the person who knows the department and is over the department to be doing the negotiating," Ms. Powless said.

Mr. Konop was prevented from giving a full reply because the meeting was abruptly ended because of time constraints.

Afterward, though, he said it wasn't true that only one person would control who serves in key county positions. The county executive-council plan requires that the council confirm the executive's appointees.

"There's way more checks and balances in [the executive-council] system. It's far more democratic in nature," Mr. Konop said.

He said he plans a tour starting Monday of speaking to local groups in his effort to generate support to raise the more than 14,000 signatures that will be needed by late July to place the reorganization initiative on the ballot.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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