Deadline Now: Reforming Lucas County Government
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Deadline Now: Reforming Lucas County Government

Friday, April 6, 2012

There are those who think it is time for a major change in the way Lucas County is governed -- and they are making an effort to get a proposal on the ballot in November.

If approved, the county would move to a system of government with a county executive and council which would replace the old county commission. Voters would still elect a county prosecutor, but most of the other officers would be appointed. This week's guests are Thomas Palmer, an attorney who is co-chair of "Better Lucas County," the committee for government reform, as well as Neema Bell, also an attorney and a member of the committee, and Dr. Richard Ruppert, the former president of the Medical College of Ohio. They are all home rule supporters.

On the web:

Here are Jack Lessenberry's Final Thoughts for this edition of Deadline Now:

To the best of my knowledge, most large Midwestern counties have gone to some form of county government similar to the “home rule” model Lucas County reformers are trying to get on the ballot.

One of the most recent was Macomb County, Michigan, a large county with almost twice as many people, less than a hundred miles away. Macomb went to a home rule system only a couple of years ago. Mark Hackel, its first elected executive, said they had no choice.

Without a strong chief executive, the county was at a big disadvantage when it came to negotiating with Detroit’s two other major counties, Wayne and Oakland. Both have had elected county executives for years. There’s a lot about this model to like.

For one thing, it makes little sense to be electing some positions, like county coroner. I am a pretty well-educated fellow, but absolutely lack the competence to know which candidate might be the best choice to conduct autopsies and do toxicology tests.

My guess is that most people are in the same boat.

The county commission form of government Lucas County has now probably made good sense in 1912, and may make the most sense for many small rural counties today. But this is a much more complicated era, and county government is a major enterprise.

Those who would lose their offices under a home rule plan are understandably likely to be against it. But those involved in crafting any home rule plan might be well advised to study, compare and contrast how things have worked in each of the other two large Michigan counties I mentioned, Wayne and Oakland.

In Oakland County, the strong executive form of government seems to have been an engine of development and growth. The county has had the same executive for twenty years, and while he has been sometimes controversial, there has never been any major scandal. Things are far different in Wayne County, however.

There, the last county executive was the boss of a giant patronage machine whose offices were raided by the FBI. The current regime is under investigation for almost unbelievable corruption.

One employee went from one county job to another and got a two hundred thousand dollar “severance pay” bonus in the process.

Lucas County needs government that is flexible, powerful enough to get things accomplished – and accountable at the same time. Let’s hope the drafters of any ballot proposal give us all three.