A Fresh Start

As we wash away the grime of our 200-year-old county government, important choices lie ahead. The biggest:
Who we elect as county executive.
Isn't it beautiful, our shiny new county government? So perfect and uncorrupted, especially right now, just before we open the box?

Many Clevelanders are feeling nervous about the reforms we so eagerly grabbed off the shelf in a 2-to-1 vote last fall. Not buyer's remorse, just buyer's anxiety. Will it work as promised? Or will it give off an annoying buzz when plugged in? This "Some Assembly Required" label seems ominous. It has something to do with this mail-in ballot form, right?

Relax a bit. Yes, our new government can be better: less wasteful, less corrupt, less likely to make big mistakes (like spending $40 million on an ugly skyscraper). Although it's brand-new and untested, we bought it based on wise rules of thumb. If you create checks and balances that make a bunch of ambitious people answer to one another, they're more likely to stop one another from doing something really greedy, arrogant or dumb.

You also get more done if one person is in charge: CEOs in business and presidents, governors and mayors. That's why we're electing a county executive: someone to clean out the county's dusty closets, cut bloated payrolls and fire the people who ought to be fired. Someone to keep up and improve the social services that tens of thousands of kids, elderly and the mentally ill are counting on — even while the county's tax revenues fall more with each year. And, hardest of all, someone with ideas on how to tackle the new county charter's top goal: Helping to create new jobs. A single leader may pull that off, may unite a long-squabbling region around a vision for our economy. But — and this is the paradox — that can only happen if he or she is a collaborator and diplomat.

David Abbott, executive director of the George Gund Foundation, chaired a 2008 commission that helped sketch the path to a new charter. Today, he warns not to elect a "lone ranger" as county executive.

"We have a tendency to think of leadership in these heroic terms, but that isn't the kind of leader we need anymore," Abbott says. "The work that needs to be done isn't the kind you can get done by issuing orders and expecting other people to follow."

Stuart Garson, chairman of the local Democrats, says Cuyahoga County is looking for our "first George Washington." He doesn't mean the heroic general, but the self-aware president who acted boldly at times, cautiously at others, always knowing he was setting an example. So when we choose our first county executive on Sept. 7 and Nov. 2, we'll make one of our most important decisions in years: choosing not only the person who'll run the county through 2014, but the type of leader Greater Cleveland wants for decades to come.
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