ELYRIA — A group of business leaders and political veterans want to ditch the traditional three-member panel of county commissioners and adopt a county council form of government.
Only Summit and Cuyahoga counties have county councils and the counties are lead by a county executive — in essence, a mayor, with seven part-time district representatives.
While widespread corruption and political kickbacks — starting with former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and trickling down to dozens of other county employees, contractors and vendors — sparked the switch in those counties, Citizens for Equal Representation are promoting the change here as being about fair representation.
The county would be divided into seven districts of near equal population size — roughly 42,000 residents — and the elected district council would represent the residents and lobby their needs just as ward council people have specific areas of constitutes.
“The biggest issue is representation,” said key organizer Brian Hoagland of The Hoffman Group and a well-known community member in Elyria as a coach at St. Jude’s School and board member of the EMH Medical Center. “We want the minority to have a chance at representation. We want each district to have a voice whether it’s a township, Avon, Avon Lake or city like Elyria and Lorain.”
Avon Mayor Jim Smith, who after 37 years of holding public office is retiring at the end of the year, said the idea has some validity. During his tenure, he said he saw elected officials completely bypass small suburbs.
“Power has always been centrally located in Elyria and Lorain, mostly Lorain,” Smith said. “You really don’t have to cater to an Avon, Avon Lake or North Ridgeville to get elected. I have seen people not even come to Avon, especially when we were smaller, because it didn’t count. It has gotten better, but when you spread out the representation it gets even better.”
Smith said he has attended some of the initial meetings of the group, but has not gotten involved in the Citizens for Equal Representation beyond that because of work commitments in Avon.
“I’m running one of the fastest growing cities in Ohio,” he said. “But we don’t get a lot of representation.”
To pull off a change of this magnitude, Lorain County would have to change to a charter form of government. Voters would have to be presented with the proposal and vote on whether it should be enacted.
Hoagland said the earliest that could happen is November 2014. Several steps need to be taken place first including submitting the idea to the Lorain County Board of Elections, getting the board’s approval to circulate petitions to eligible voters and collecting more than 10,000 signatures from voters.
“To do this right, it will take some time,” he said. “We will need the year to fully explain what we are hoping and believe that the more people understand this, the better chance we have of this passing.”
The idea is just becoming public now but has been percolating behind the scenes for years, Hoagland said. In the past six months, supporters met weekly to craft the proposed charter that details how county government would change.
“Basically we took Cuyahoga County’s as a template and amended it for Lorain County’s needs,” he said. “We envision the district council persons would work part-time, and we would see professionals and business leaders step up because they want a hand in shaping the future of Lorain County.”
The council would appoint a county administrator to act as the day-to-day operations manager similar to Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald.
“We don’t want full-time political people,” he said, adding quickly that the proposal is in no way a slam against current Commissioners Lori Kokoski, Ted Kalo and Tom Williams, who are elected to the full-time positions.
Williams said he doesn’t see the initiative as an attack on what he and the other commissioners do.
“But of course, if it is something the people want, I would be in support of it,” he said. “It will come down to what the people of Lorain County want and if they feel they have the representation they need or need more.”
Still, Williams said the proposal does address areas he would say current county government is weak in, specifically the ability to create subcommittees to address rural, suburban and urban issues differently.
“We don’t have that now. What you have now is one or two commissioners going out, investigating a situation and bringing it back to the rest,” he said. “They say the commissioner job is a part-time job, but it can’t be. I am constantly going every day and every weekend talking to different people.”
If the issue hits the ballot in 2014, Williams said it will be at the same time he is up for re-election.
There is no telling if the petition passing process will go that far. But in the meantime, the group is going public to gain support and financial backing.
All of the leg work already has been done in Ashtabula County, where voters will see their own charter issue this coming November. It only further fuels the group’s claim that others in the state are not satisfied with the status quo.
“We want to see the county government change and get updated,” said former county Auditor Mark Stewart, a Democrat. “It’s that old state statue form we are working with now, which means any time we want to do something specific to Lorain County we have to get state laws changed. Good luck with that. Charter government will give us a living document that can change as our county changes.”
Jack Baird, a Republican at large councilman in Elyria, also is a key supporter pushing for the change.
“But this is not a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s completely bipartisan,” he said. “On both sides of the aisle, the talk is more about what is best for Lorain County and how everyone can have a seat at the table.”
The idea does not have universal support.
Sheffield Mayor John Hunter said he can’t see why the change is needed. While some may say county government is not responsive to their needs, the opposite is the case for Sheffield.
“When you deal with people directly and you know what you are talking about then they are willing to work with you.”
Hunter said he knows some townships in the county would like to see a change.
“Then, I say, fix township government. You fix something that’s broke, not something that’s not broken,” he said.
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view proposed charter and maps, click on the links below.