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Big Players in County Reform Trade Barbs at CSU

On one side, there’s the group New Cuyahoga Now represented last night by Parma Heights mayor Martin Zanotti and State Senator Nina Turner. They say: enough! We’ve debated reform for ages, let’s get it done this year. Martin Zanotti.

ZANOTTI: We have to get past study, study, put it on the shelf. The reality is the reason some people want to study more is that this is a game-changer folks.

It’s fair to say Zanotti’s plan would be a game changer. If voters approve it, Cuyahoga’s three county commissioners will be replaced by one county executive, and an 11-member council. All other elected positions—save judges and the prosecutor—would be appointed and approved by the council.

Then there’s the group called “Real Reform Done Right,” and they want voters to appoint a slate of 15 candidates who will spend the next year studying reform further, and then come up with their plan for Cuyahoga’s government structure to put on the 2010 ballot. Harriet Applegate of the AFL-CIO represents this idea.

APPLEGATE: The other side will say we can’t wait even another year for restructuring. They say we must do it now. If something doesn’t work out, we can reform it later. That’s no way to create a lasting county government. Let’s get it right the first time.

Applegate’s group argues that the New Cuyahoga Now charter falls short in providing effective reform. They say, for instance, that the new charter (executive and council) might have fewer checks and balances with so many appointed positions. But by and large, their criticism is one of process. Applegate said the Zanotti-led group created too much of the charter behind closed doors and with too little public input. That led to this exchange. First, Mayor Zanotti.

ZANOTTI: What is it that those of you sitting here tonight don’t already know that we need to do in this region? Do we not need to make this region better? Do we not need more economic opportunities? Is that not what we’re all here for. Is 15 years not enough study? What’s the magic number?

APPLEGATE: Well, I just want to say, Marty, there are so many ways to do it. You have one particular proposal. You have a very strong executive, you’ve got a council, the council is elected by districts. Many people say you should consider some at-large people. There’s lots of leeway. There’s lots of ways to accomplish this. You have one very particular proposal that our team happens to think is quite flawed. And we want to open it up to make sure that all parties are listened to and get input unlike your proposal.

To which Zanotti, responded, how do they know they won’t end up with virtually the same proposal his group did? Zanotti’s plan is quite similar to previous proposals from various study groups convened over the years, and Nina Turner said their idea is a lot like forms of government Americans are used to.

TURNER: We have a president and a congress, and we have elected congress people who lobby on our behalf, but also lobby on behalf of the United States of America. We have mayors and councilpeople. Councilpeople lobby for their ward or their district, but they’re also cognizant of the greater good of their city.

In the end, it was two hours of tough questions and traded barbs…questions about minority representation and the independence of courts and judges. The Zanotti camp acknowledges that if their proposal passes, it will be imperfect and will need frequent review and amending. The Applegate side pledged that some proposal would come out of their commission and end up on next year’s ballot—a response to some who wonder if that side is trying to kill reform by delaying it.

If all that’s not confusing enough, there was also a third group at last night’s debate. They call themselves the Citizens Reform Association and they back the Zanotti proposal, but they are also putting up their own, independent slate of 15 candidates to study reform, just in case the charter fails at the ballot. They say: vote for the new charter, but if you also vote for the wait-and-study plan, choose our slate. Radio talk show host Thomas Kelly is the director of this group.

KELLY: So, you can vote yes, yes, and yes. And the third yes, make sure, if you vote for that charter commission, you vote for the independent candidates.

The problem there is, no one has any clue what happens if voters pass both proposals.