Back when he was the city councilman for Old Brooklyn, a stranger tried to force his way into a house in his ward. The resident fought the man off, then called 911 and her mother. In O’Malley’s telling, the woman’s mother, driving all the way in from Westlake, arrived at the house before the police.
O’Malley interrogated the police chief and the safety director about it: Where were the officers? What took so long? But no answers were offered. No good ones, anyway.
“I remember just thinking, this city has real problems,” O’Malley says. “I’m starting to feel the same way with Cuyahoga County.”
O’Malley took office in 2017. With an Irish name and critics harping on supposed connections to the patronage-dispensing Bill Mason machine, O’Malley was an odd reformer. But he swept into the prosecutor’s chair with more than 55 percent of the vote and, in the last year, has seen a dismaying pattern.
“I’m starting to feel, since county reform, that the county is sliding to the same type of feeling that I felt when I worked for Cleveland,“ says O’Malley, “where I felt things just aren’t working.”
This year marks a decade since the last round of county reform. O’Malley remembers it well. He was working as former Prosecutor Mason’s first assistant. In 2008, the county’s old three-commissioner system of government all but collapsed. Federal agents raided the homes and offices of county officials. Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, auditor Frank Russo, a judge, and a coterie of contractors and lawyers fell to corruption charges.
Even longtime sheriff Gerald McFaul resigned after a series of stories by The Plain Dealer looked into separate allegations that he had accepted cash from his employees. He later pled guilty to theft in office.
Every official in government looked crooked — the commissioners and the auditors, and the lawmen and judges too. This was no case of bad apples. The tree looked poisoned, root to leaf. So voters chopped it down. In 2009, they approved a new system of government. O’Malley voted for it. The measure passed by a two-to-one margin.
We live under that system today. A unitary executive, elected by the entire county, appoints and oversees department heads, such as the Clerk of Courts and the sheriff, who had been elected in the old system. The county council, which controls the purse, and whose members are elected from districts in the county, balances the executive’s considerable power.
The system seemed to work well. Until last February, when news spilled out that prosecutors in O’Malley’s office were looking into the administration of County Executive Armond Budish. The investigation began in the IT department, and then broadened to examine the jail. It was overcrowded and understaffed. Inmates were dying. “How did things get so bad?” Cleveland.com reporters Courtney Astolfi and Adam Ferrise wrote in November. “The answer, according to a two-month Cleveland.com investigation, is money.”
Budish wanted to cram more inmates in, part of a plan to regionalize city jails. He said it would bring up to $5.5 million in over two years — $99 per day, per inmate. In the wake of Cleveland.com’s reporting, and a U.S. Marshals report that found “inhumane” conditions at the jail, Budish put the plan on hold and promised to fix the problems.
But the year concluded with eight inmate deaths, and, this January, indictments began to rain down. So far, four county administrators and eight guards have been indicted.
O’Malley recused himself from the investigation in February. Now, with some distance, he thinks it’s time to consider tweaking the structure of the county administration.
“Clearly the events over the last year have indicated that the county, I believe, would be better served by having an elected sheriff who is answerable and held accountable to the voters of our county,” says O’Malley.
The issues at the jail, he thinks, would have been less severe if the sheriff answered to the people rather than the county executive, and had control of their own budget.
The idea for an elected sheriff has bounced around county council since 2018, but now it’s steaming ahead. County Councilman Michael Gallagher and Council President Dan Brady told me they intend to introduce elected-sheriff legislation into council in June.
If approved by council, the charter change would need to be approved by voters on, Gallagher and Brady hope, the November ballot. Support from O’Malley, who, other than Budish, is the only non-judicial official elected countywide, will likely help pass it.
But for O’Malley, an elected sheriff is just the start of what he hopes will be structural change. He speaks favorably of the pre-2009 system — it was like a wheel, he says, with spokes that could change and turn smoothly — but wants to have an open discussion.
“We’re coming upon 10 years under this new form of government. I think it makes sense that the county, and the county council and perhaps a committee of citizens, get together and let’s look at the data,” O’Malley says. “The citizens of this county voted overwhelmingly for this new form of government. I think it’s fair at this point to take a step back and let’s analyze the results.”
Whether to do that is an open question. But O’Malley is shrewd enough to know that just by calling for a debate, other inconvenient (or convenient) questions will be asked: Do the past year’s events warrant incremental changes, or should all the administration’s chairs be reshuffled? And if the chairs are fine, does that make the problem, then, the people occupying them?
O’Malley is marching out onto the mine-strewn field of county reform, farther even than those who want an elected sheriff, and beckoning others to follow. That alone makes him, and his ideas, worth watching.
“Maybe the result is we tinker. The simple solution is we put on an elected sheriff. Maybe there is additional tinkering that could be done. But I do think it’s time to start reviewing it,” says O’Malley. “The issues that have arisen over the last year, maybe we can turn a real negative situation into a positive.”
8:00 AM EST
July 8, 2019