Unless you have been hiding out at Seneca Caverns, Ohio, without the benefit of the printed word, radio, television or internet, you’ve probably been reading (if not daily, then weekly) about the troubles with our county administration.
The stories would slake the thirst of any aspiring journalist: unauthorized overtime for salaried employees; withholding of video footage of a jail guard attacking a female prisoner; unapproved rent payments; an internal audit of the IT department hidden from the public; and illegal awarding of incentives to county workers, among other issues.
There have been resignations, repayments of funds and revocation of jobs offers. Perhaps worst of all, the ongoing corruption investigation led to a well-publicized,
nearly four-hour raid on the offices of Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish by federal and state investigators, who nabbed five boxes of materials, two computer hard drives and an envelope.
After the raid, Budish issued a statement that claimed his office was “forthcoming and transparent” and “fully cooperative.” He mentioned that the raid “looks like a political move,” also describing it as a “political circus.”
So who is right: our county executive or the headlines? It depends on whom you ask. To get a more complete answer, you need to weigh the accomplishments of our county government against the previous county commissioner style administrations — many of which were riddled with corruption and crime for years.
“One of the more unfortunate things that happened was that the new county government was born right after a major corruption scandal,” says attorney Majeed G. Makhlouf, who was the county’s first law director under its new charter. Today, Makhlouf is an experienced litigator and a transactional lawyer whose practice with Berns, Ockner & Greenberger concentrates on complex business litigation, real-estate development and transactions, economic development, and public-private partnerships among many other areas of focus.
“I think people bought into the new government thinking it was the solution to all of those problems,” he says. You adopt a form of government, and magically corruption will disappear.”
But that simply didn’t happen. You introduce human beings into any equation, and there are bound to be problems. Even County Executive Budish is philosophical about the headlines.
“I am not going to get into concerns around headlines,” Budish says. “The fact is the media is doing its job. Do I wish that the headlines were more positive? Sure. But I am focused on the work that needs to be done and excited to keep moving the county forward.
“We have major initiatives underway including the Climate Action Plan, the Microgrid, our workforce initiatives, amping up our economic development activity and creating more efficiencies in our services, delivering much-needed health and human services — those are my focus, not the news cycle.”
The idea of a strong county government is certainly nothing new to Northeast Ohio. In 1934, Cuyahoga County voters adopted a charter that would have modernized our county government, but the Ohio Supreme Court overturned it, says attorney Eugene Kramer, author of the current Cuyahoga County charter. Kramer also was instrumental in writing the county charter for Summit County, which voters passed in 1979 and went into effect in 1981.
“From time to time, there have been many efforts to create a more modern form of county government for Cuyahoga County, but the one that resulted in our current charter began in 2008,” Kramer recalls. “It started with a presentation at Landerhaven by Cleveland Magazine’s Inside Business. The speaker had canceled, so Lute [Harmon Sr.] asked Sam Miller if he would speak. Naturally, Sam said he would, but only with the provision that he could talk about anything he wanted to — which he always did anyway.”
At that presentation, Miller said that without a reformed system of county government, Northeast Ohio was doomed. Attendees of the event initially applauded the issue and filled out cards indicating that they wanted to be involved. But when it came time to move forward, the number dwindled, says Kramer, due to the political and business affiliations of those who were in attendance.
Starting with reform
After months of political wrangling, which included sneaking the measure onto the budget bill in Columbus, the entire project was put on hold. Then, in July 2008, the FBI decided to pay a visit to Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo, who both went on extended, but not welcome, vacations courtesy of the state.
It was then that a small group of people rescued the county government reform effort. But it would take an enormous amount of voter signatures to get the measure on the local ballot, and it had to be done in quick order to meet an impending deadline. It was July, and they needed the signatures in only a few months to make the November 2009 election.
“So Joe Roman [of the Greater Cleveland Partnership] came forward with $100,000 for a professional organization to go out and collect the signatures, which is what they did,” Kramer recalls.
The GCP also raised significant funds for the transition. So our current form of county government was born of scandal but supported by business leaders who liked the idea, which is not really too surprising.
“We actually tried three times to get county government reform through in Summit County,” recalls Kramer. “It wasn’t until we had a major scandal down there that we were able to get it through.”
Today, Summit and Cuyahoga counties are the only two counties of the 88 counties in Ohio that are not ruled by a three-member commission. That gives both counties a competitive advantage, something we shouldn’t overlook when considering the county government’s current problems.
“The average person on the street needs to understand and realize the value that this form of government gives them,” says Makhlouf.
Because the government is more streamlined and offers home rule, there can be faster economic and civic development, says Makhlouf, who was directly involved in the county’s real estate consolidation project that led to the development of the iconic Metropolitan at the 9 hotel and the surrounding area.
“That project would not have happened but for this form of county government,” says Makhlouf. “By that I don’t necessarily mean the individuals, but the system that allowed us to put laws in place.”
It’s a system that allowed the county to go to market with properties, putting them up for sale not just on price, but other determining factors such as end use.
“We could have done some of that under state law, but the ability to do it the way we did and have the positive spinoff effects would not have been possible but for this kind of government,” Makhlouf adds.
Similarly, the Hilton Hotel would not have come online in time for the Republican National Convention if it weren’t for our current form of county government.
“The only way we were able to deliver that project on that schedule was to have more flexible construction methodology,” says Makhlouf. “And we wouldn’t have been able to do it under state law. We had to do it under local home rule. We were able to reap the benefits of flexibility under local ordinances.”
A system of checks and balances
Another distinct advantage our county charter has over a three-commissioner form of county government is that there are checks and balances and a more cohesive structure than people are used to, says Makhlouf.
“There is always tension between different branches of government, as well there should be,” says Makhlouf. “It’s the form of government that most people are used to in their cities and at the state level.
“With the county council’s review of contracts, there is also a lot more oversight of the contracting process today than ever existing in our history.”
Which in the past led to a lot of personal construction projects like outdoor kitchens performed as kickbacks. Today, we’re also able to have standardized and streamlined employment practices.
“Today, an employee working at the fiscal office is subject to the same employment rules as someone working in the sheriff’s department,” Makhlouf adds.
Indeed, Cuyahoga County was recently recognized by Forbes magazine as one of the best employers in our state.
Our current form of county govern-
ment also allows us to take the lead in addressing local issues that have national implications.
“One of the things we were able to pass was the adoption of domestic partner benefits,” says Makhlouf. “Marriage equality is now the law of the land, so that law is now moot. Still, with our current form of government, we were able to do that in the absence of the federal law catching up to the constitutional rights of employees.”
Flexibility like that can be something of double-edged sword, Makhlouf admits. Take the recent Plastic Bag legislation as an example.
When the county council voted 8 to 3 to pass a ban on single-use plastic bags earlier this year, the GCP came out in support of a state bill which would usurp local government’s power to do so.
“First of all, the objective of improving our environment is something we support,” says Joe Roman, president and CEO of the GCP. “But as we did our research on the county legislation, it became clear that paper bags, which we would have been incentivizing, are in many ways no better for the environment than plastic.
“We need to think about different strategies. What we are doing is urging the county council to take a little more time to understand what the ramifications of a plastic bag ban really are.”
Naturally, grocery stores, which operate on razor thin product margins, are against any legislation that might impact their profitability or ability to compete, especially with grocery stores that are just across the county’s borders. And, attracting grocery stores to Cleveland’s inner-city neighborhoods is just as important to economic development as investment in infrastructure and real estate.
Although the GCP is against the county’s plastic bag legislation, Roman is quick to point out that it is still an active and committed partner to Cuyahoga County government.
“You can disagree on one issue and agree on 20 others,” Roman says. “We respect the county and its leadership, but we also believe we have a business point of view and a view of how the market works that needs to be a part of their consideration set.”
Budish agrees the two entities are still close partners.
“The GCP and the county have an excellent relationship and extensive communication,” he says. “I do not agree with their position on the plastic bag legislation, but we continue to work closely together on many economic development and workforce initiatives. I absolutely respect the organization and the great work that they do in our county to foster growth and opportunity.”
Using partnerships for growth
Perhaps best of all, the current county government’s structure gives it the opportunity to forge strategic partnerships, which it has done in spades.
“We do work closely with the GCP on the workforce sector partnership,” says Budish, “which is a collaborative effort among many organizations including, the city of Cleveland, Cleveland Foundation, Deaconess Foundation, Fund for our Economic Future, Greater Cleveland Partnership, the George Gund Foundation, Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Workforce Development Board, TeamNEO and United Way of Greater Cleveland.”
Actually, the recent plastic bag legislation is an example of how partnerships might work to introduce proactive legislation that works for both the general populace as well as the business community.
“We can use our county as something of a laboratory to introduce new legislation to see how it works,” says Makhlouf. “If it doesn’t work, we can find out why. By forcing legislation like this at the local level, we may end up forcing the state to pass legislation that we need.”
Building on solutions for change
Certainly, there have been some county-based decisions that have been troublesome, and, let’s face it, scandalous. But rather than throw out the baby with the bath water, we could strive to use our county government as a viable tool to fight against corruption whether at the county level or highter.
However, if we keep seeing the county as a problem, it could sway public opinion away from it.
“We can’t live in a county where the continuing story is about a problem,” Makhlouf says. “We have a lot of momentum right now. We’re starting to see some of the benefits of our county government trickle down into our neighborhoods. We are starting to see some of the benefits to our business community. We’re starting to have some impact.
“We can’t as a county, as a region, turn the clock back. We can’t afford to be embroiled in these issues when the county is in need of so much and offers the tools to deliver on a lot of things that we need.”