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Issue Date: January 2012


Fast Eddie

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald got the new government off to a quick start. Now he must negotiate a minefield of issues that could make or break his career.
Michael D. Roberts
editorial@clevelandmagazine.com

After a year, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald has shown he is more than just lucky. In a strangely contagious refrain around town, people are complimenting his earnest pursuit of honest and decent government.

Although he opposed the charter that created government reform, the very vehicle that could someday propel him to even higher office, FitzGerald has risen from an obscure suburban mayor to a figure of some importance and hope.

A year ago, I wrote that one negative measurement of a politician is hubris. Thus far, FitzGerald has kept his ego in check and has shown an aptitude for acting quickly and effectively, while taking no prisoners.

He appears to be a confident leader, perhaps even a man in a political hurry, a dramatic change from the mix of comic and crooked leaders who preceded him.

FitzGerald’s election was the result of the federal investigation into wrongdoing at the county, which aligned the stars perfectly for reform. Now, his day-to-day work of rebuilding a 200-year-old government has revealed how bad off we all were. The swiftness with which FitzGerald is implementing reforms contrasts with the wearying, agonizing revelations of corruption, cronyism and incompetence, played out over three years.

The old commissioner system was as much of a sham as the people who served in it — outdated, hopelessly ineffective, laden with patronage bordering on incompetence, controlled by a party that couldn’t spell progress, let alone engineer it.

The new government found no uniform practices in the county offices for hiring and pay or even job descriptions. Within the year, FitzGerald cut redundant payrolls by almost $20 million. It is likely that there will be more cuts.

FitzGerald has championed transparency and accountability, the linchpins to a better government. All county contracts and purchases are now available to the public online. To do business with the county now, contractors have to file additional paperwork and attend ethics training. The added paperwork is annoying to some contractors, but it goes a long way to guarantee openness.

There remains, however, a lingering doubt over the county council’s dedication to transparency, particularly that of Council President C. Ellen Connally. She has attempted to act behind closed doors on council affairs and balked at providing online public access to county business. Connally appears mired in the past.

The council is made up of leftovers from the old politics. It desperately needs to grow new leadership that has vision and spirit by creating a professional environment that attracts younger people to public office. The council must develop into a mature body dedicated to improving the community.

Its brightest talent so far is Dave Greenspan, whose oversight work into the operations of MetroHealth has been both revealing and refreshing. He’s helped open the hospital system’s troubled finances to public scrutiny, an example of the new government’s effectiveness.

The first year’s housecleaning and reorganization have been mostly effective. What needs to happen next is more complex and wrought with difficulty.

FitzGerald is casting a watchful eye on the Medical Mart and Convention Center, a project born with little transparency. He reacted quickly to the media reports that the Medical Mart was floundering or changing its strategy, creating a panel to oversee it.

He needs to conduct a detailed investigation into how the previous government wasted more than $40 million on the Ameritrust Tower: What mistakes were made, who made them and why? These are reasonable questions the public deserves answers to.

An airing of the Ameritrust affair would go a long way toward fulfilling the intangible need to create confidence within the business community. After two decades of scandal at City Hall and the county building, business leaders are wary of local government. The more open and responsive FitzGerald and the council are to the issues that face the community, the more businesses will consider investing here.

One problem FitzGerald faces is a Cleveland City Hall that has neither vision nor verve. Mayor Frank Jackson’s only efforts on development have been on the front page of The Plain Dealer, with such ideas as blocking the roadways on Public Square to make a park. Will that bring flocks of folks downtown?

City Hall controls six out of nine seats on the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority, which plays a key role in lakefront development but has failed to create a comprehensive strategy that works. The Plain Dealer devoted lengthy stories to the mayor’s new waterfront plan, even though the city doesn’t have the money to execute it. Like Public Square, it’s more a dysfunctional dream than a workable plan.

FitzGerald made his first inroad into the port authority this November by naming Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc., to the board. He will have two more seats to fill this month, but they will only provide a window into the port authority, with little power. FitzGerald needs to find a way for the county to take over lakefront planning, or the development will get no further than the newspaper’s front page.

I see the city becoming an increasing drag on the county. Its loss of population, dwindling tax base and ever-weakening political leadership are going to weigh heavily on the region. Over time, the county will have to devote more resources to Cleveland.

The motivation for FitzGerald is his political future. A good performance in his current job will give him the opportunity to run statewide, perhaps for governor. However, his dismantling of the county patronage machine may create political enemies.

There is no doubt that reforming government will become increasingly more difficult, but there is also no doubt that, for the first time in at least a century, we are on the right track. One could argue that this came about through divine intervention. In that case, let us hope the gods stick around for a while.


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