When federal officials indicted Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora on corruption charges in September, it was the latest indication that the government in Ohio’s most populous county was broken. That wasn’t news to the citizens of Cuyahoga County, though -- they approved a plan a year earlier to fix it. As a result, the form of government is changing in Cuyahoga County, which spans Cleveland and many of its suburbs.
Under the old system, county commissioners and a multiplicity of other offices, including county coroner and county engineer, were elected countywide. The result was a government that was simultaneously fragmented and lacking in checks and balances, says Martin Zanotti, a former mayor of Parma Heights and architect of the reform plan. Each elected official ruled over an independent fiefdom. Hiring decisions were decentralized, creating inefficiencies and opportunities for patronage and corruption.
People in positions of power took advantage of those opportunities. That reality started to become clear in July 2008, when federal agents conducted a massive raid of county offices. Since then, more than 30 county officials and contractors have pled guilty to a variety of corruption charges. County Auditor Frank Russo faces more than 20 years in prison after admitting to accepting bribes and kickbacks. And Dimora, who doubled as head of the county Democratic Party, stands accused of using his elected office for personal gain. He says he’s innocent.
But corruption isn’t the only thing ailing Cuyahoga County. Cleveland has long suffered from all the familiar problems of the industrial Midwest: population loss, poverty and economic stagnation. Even wealthier suburbs aren’t immune. “Cuyahoga County is having to grapple with some of the problems that have affected Cleveland for years,” says Jennifer Bradley, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Great Lakes Economic Initiative.
Starting in January, Cuyahoga County will have a single county executive as its top elected official who, proponents hope, will provide energetic leadership and serve as a focal point for much-needed economic development. It will have an 11-member County Council with members representing distinct districts, giving the county a legislative branch to check the executive. Most of the old countywide elected offices will become appointed positions, which will be filled by professionals instead of politicians. The changes are similar to ones made a decade ago in Allegheny County, Pa., where Pittsburgh is showing signs of economic rebirth.
Still, no one in Cuyahoga County is naive enough to think a change of government structure is a comprehensive solution to the region’s problems. The system’s success may hinge on who county voters pick as the new first county executive in an election this month. “Any form of government,” Zanotti says, “is ultimately only going to be as good as the people you elect.”