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All in the Family

The Summit County boss wants to suppress wages -- for everyone but his friends and relatives.


Last year, Summit County spent $2 million more than it will bring in this year, instigating much talk of belt-tightening.

Civilian staffers in the Sheriff's Department have had their weekly hours cut from 32 to 24. In April, raises for all nonunion employees were held to a modest 2 percent. Even in the engineer's office, where at least eight jobs have been cut through attrition since 2003, employees who've absorbed additional work were forced to accept pay freezes.

There have even been threats of layoffs.

But when it comes to the friends and family of County Executive James McCarthy, there always seems to be more money to spend.

With his ball-shaped nose and his cotton-white comb-over, McCarthy looks like a clean-shaven Santa Claus -- an image befitting the most powerful man in county government. During his quarter-century climb to the top, he rose from clerk of courts to chief fiscal officer, until finally he was elected executive in 2000 -- a post equivalent to all three Cuyahoga County commissioners combined. The longtime Democrat is now the architect of the county's billion-dollar budget. He decides how the money flows.

Lately, McCarthy's decisions have done little to please the rank and file. Earlier this year, just as six unions were heading into contract negotiations, McCarthy announced that he'd be holding raises to 2 percent. He further warned that unions shouldn't fight for more; their jobs were at risk. "There's only so much money," he said in his state of the county address. (McCarthy declined to comment for this story.)

But apparently there is still enough cash to support McCarthy's relatives. His ex-wife works in the fiscal office, making $43,035 a year. His half-brother, Danny Justus, makes $75,504 a year as director of the Board of Revision, which handles contested property appraisals. Justus' wife, in turn, works as an executive assistant in Job and Family Services.

Meanwhile, McCarthy's daughter works for the Board of Elections, while her ex-husband, Scott Wagner -- whom she divorced in April -- works as the assistant director of the Department of Development.

All told, the McCarthy tribe earns more than $350,000 in annual government salaries.

The patriarch is known to be generous with his clan, even while others must go without. Two years ago, while some departments faced hiring freezes, McCarthy asked the county council to approve a 15 percent pay increase for his son-in-law. Wagner was given a $9,650 raise, putting his salary above $70,000, though he was not given additional duties. (Wagner did not respond to repeated interview requests.)

Many of McCarthy's closest allies have also benefited from healthy pay bumps. In 2001, unions agreed to hold their raises at 3 percent, only to watch McCarthy's executive cabinet pick up hikes ranging from 5 to 28 percent the following year. Sarah Kisner, director of Job and Family Services, watched her salary soar from $72,355 to $92,700. All told, cabinet wage hikes since 2001 have cost the county over $100,000 annually.

McCarthy's cabinet also includes some favorites from his time in the fiscal office. Jill Skapin, who was his secretary, became the county's director of communications when McCarthy became executive. Her job application shows that while her PR experience wasn't extensive, her political connections were. She'd worked as a secretary for McCarthy's predecessor, Tim Davis, and had the Summit County Democratic Party finance chairman, Wayne Jones, listed as a reference.

In three years, her salary jumped from $75,750 to $98,342.

Skapin's family has also grown cozy with the public dime. Her husband works as a county plans examiner, while her daughter works in PR for the Akron Zoo, which is funded with county tax dollars. (Skapin declined to comment.)

Even more recently, young Democrats being groomed to join the elite have received special treatment. Take Gregg Cramer, whom McCarthy backed in a three-way Democratic primary for an Ohio House seat last year.

Just after McCarthy insisted that raises be held to 2 percent, Cramer received a promotion to assistant director of administration -- along with a 40 percent raise. Cramer, who has worked for the county just shy of two years, saw his salary rise from the high 30s to over $55,000, though his duties as a grant-writer didn't change.

For union leaders, it all smacks of hypocrisy. "The old boys' club is just sick," says Robin Schenault, president for Communications Workers Local 4546, which represents employees of the Children Services Board. "While his buddies are getting rich, he's handing out 30 cents an hour to the rest of the county."

Jim Smith, who was president of AFSCME Local 1229 for 22 years before retiring in 2001, agrees. "McCarthy has his pets. And I'll bet on the '63 Chevy I'm polishing in my garage that they all got a lot more than 2 percent."

Of course, it's all perfectly legal. The county's nepotism law simply says that an employee can't be supervised or hired by an immediate relative. "It's not surprising that that would raise suspicion -- that's a lot of family," says Raymond Cox, chairman of the Department of Public Administration and Urban Studies at the University of Akron. "But if they aren't violating the rules, it's not a problem. In fact, it's a great American tradition."

Still, McCarthy's fiscal favoritism has only nourished bitterness in the wake of his selective belt-tightening. Even county council passed a resolution urging McCarthy to stem his random cutbacks, claiming that money could be saved in other ways. While McCarthy appeared to heed its advice by restoring some hours, it doesn't appear that he's about to acquiesce to the 3 percent raises unions are requesting.

"It's aggravating when his relatives are getting rich, and then he's stepping all over the guys out in the trenches," Schenault says.

This, in the end, may provide McCarthy with greater incentive to even the playing field. Though Schenault gladly went door-to-door during McCarthy's 2000 campaign, she has no plans for pitching in when he's up for reelection in 2008.

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