Arcane Game

Our antiquated government sets us up to fail. Serious reform can strengthen Cleveland and make our leaders accountable again.
Forest City’s sly and sagacious Sam Miller was once asked what it would take to reform Cuyahoga County’s troubled government. His response was as prescient as an oracle’s, only without the harps and misty vapors.

“Pain,” he said. “And more pain.”

That throb is steadily increasing. Our public officials’ corruption, political ineptness, hubris, incompetence and lethargy have created a crisis.

Greater Cleveland’s ills were once papered over by slogans (Cleveland —Love It or Leave It), public relations campaigns (Cleveland’s a Plum) and a business community that stressed the positive (The Best Location in the Nation). But placebos can no longer treat the pain. We have reached the threshold where a real cure is needed. Part of that cure is serious government reform.

Since 2000, Cuyahoga County has lost almost 100,000 people. Only New Orleans’ county, battered by Hurricane Katrina, has lost more. Cleveland’s population is on its way toward 400,000 — compared to more than 900,000 in 1950. Some 73,000 jobs have been lost in the county since 2000. These losses, combined with burdensome taxes and a listless leadership, are hurting our quality of life.

Ideally, county or regional government reform would save millions in tax money by doing away with redundant layers of government and institute checks and balances that currently do not exist.

A few years ago, I worked on a Cleveland Bar Association effort to study changes to our government. I thought a city of smart people could reason a way out of this quagmire, which is driving the youth from our midst.

I was right about smart people, but wrong about reason. I got a first-hand view of the social and political obstacles confronting reform.

Several times in the last century, local leaders have tried — but failed — to address the need for a more efficient government.

Last July, in the wake of reports of rampant patronage in Cuyahoga County government, a new commission was named to create a reform plan. Just after it first met, citizens were treated to the spectacle of an FBI raid on the county building, part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation. And still, the reform panel’s plan was shot down in Columbus.

Cleveland is a town frozen in time. We are different than most American cities. Our track record of self-deceit is long and lamentable. We complain about our luckless sports teams, but we all are losers. We tolerate foolishness and small-mindedness in our leaders and a government system that does not react to our problems.

No leader has emerged with the vision to confront our decline. Jane Campbell’s administration bogged down, making little progress on major projects. Frank Jackson has allowed the city to become aimless and lethargic. Worse, he has ceded political clout from the mayor’s office to the county commissioners.

That transfer of power was like a mugging. Overnight, the county took over major efforts that the city once led, such as the convention center.

But the county is not built to handle these decisions. It is stagnant, inert and bloated. In its hands, the Ameritrust Tower purchase and the convention center/ Medical Mart project became major controversies because the county was not designed for work of this magnitude. And like it or not, the nature of our times is forcing us to confront a regional approach to governance.

The county commissioners deal with major decisions as if they were playing a pinball machine. They flip and flap at answers, buzz and bing for the public and light and lurch for the developers. They like the lights and noise, but never know the score. An ever-wary media reports another “Tilt!”

Things are so bad that observers at the county administration building take attendance, noting that the commissioners hardly come to work.

“Tim Hagan spends a lot of time in New York with his wife, the actress,” says one longtime county employee who takes notice. (Hagan’s wife, Kate Mulgrew, recently appeared in a Broadway production of the play Equus.) “Peter Lawson Jones prefers to work at his law office, and Jimmy Dimora is in a bunker sweating the outcome of the federal investigation into his activities.”

The commissioners could easily reply that, by law, their jobs are only part time. But the crisis around us is full time and unrelenting.

The Democratic Party controls the county government, which is really a welfare system for party members. It’s a commune of sorts that operates under the guise of serving the people but only takes care of friends and family. Many of its workers vote for the system, embrace the status quo and look toward retirement and a chance to double-dip — collecting their pension and coming back to work another job.

People say Chicago politics are corrupt, but the big difference between Chicago and Cleveland is that political office there is also used to advance the city. In Cuyahoga County, politics is an end, not a means. The end game is election. Nothing else matters.

Reform cannot succeed without support in the black community. But many of its older leaders, such as former congressman Lou Stokes, are recalcitrant and cling to the past. They say reform will subtract from their hard-earned civil rights progress.

Stokes was on the recent commission tasked by Gov. Ted Strickland with proposing a plan to reorganize Cuyahoga County government. Single-handedly, Stokes put an end to a bold proposal for an elected county executive and county council. While his colleagues on the commission argued that the plan would help black Clevelanders by freeing up more tax dollars for the city, Stokes charged it would disenfranchise black voters.

Since only two black candidates have ever been elected county commissioner, Stokes feared voters would never choose a proportionate number of black leaders. The irony is that last year, as Stokes was voicing these fears, Cuyahoga County voted for a black president.

The commission compromised on a less ambitious reform plan, which died in the legislature.

Other black leaders, such as George Forbes, prefer moderate changes, pointing out that the same people in office now will run for positions in any reformed government. That may be true, but reform could create checks and balances that currently do not exist.

The commissioners need only two votes to pass projects as large as the nearly half-billion-dollar convention center and Medical Mart. There is little transparency in the way they spend public money. The nine other elected county officials function independently, managing their own budgets and hiring their own employees, thus creating a network of patronage. They are responsible to no one.

Government reform would save millions and make the county run in a more democratic manner. A single county executive and a council with strong legislative powers would provide greater accountability.

The task of reform is daunting. We face one of the most difficult governance problems in America. But the forces at work in 2009 — the corruption investigation, the eroding tax base, repeated exposures of patronage abuse, the realization that the city is dying and the feeling of hopelessness about it — add up to an environment the county has never faced.

More efforts at reform are inevitably in the making, whether in Columbus or on Cleveland’s mean streets. But so far, there is no consensus. Rival groups seek to promote change, but they lack the unity to be effective.

(I’ve attended some meetings of one such group. Lute Harmon Sr., chairman of Great Lakes Publishing, which owns Cleveland Magazine, has been involved with that effort.)

Whatever real reform is proposed, voters will have to approve it. Political leaders will likely oppose it. I expect some of them to offer up a half-hearted effort at change as an alternative and a ruse.

Cuyahoga County treasurer Jim Rokakis, scorned by some local politicians for his support of reform but recognized nationally for his government work, sums up the situation from his vantage point: “We cannot afford not to change government,” he says. “We are in a free fall, and there is no bottom in sight if we continue as we are.”
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