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Who the Hell Does Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish Think He Is?

Executive Decisions

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It's so boring and anti-clickable that even the Plain Dealer / Cleveland.com no longer staffs a reporter devoted exclusively to the beat. Cleveland.com's Karen Farkas is the county reporter, but she's also tasked with reporting on casinos, the Ohio Lottery Commission and higher education — another huge beat underserved by fractional coverage. Reporter Andrew Tobias was formerly on the county assignment but now writes primarily about the RNC. Farkas, try as she might, can only attend so many county meetings and read so many county documents when she's so spasmodically engaged.

For the record, the county employes 8,063 people, 4,596 of whom fall under the purview of the county executive. There's a lot that slips through the cracks.

And though news coverage of government agencies has been vastly diminished as media companies weigh their priorities in the digital age, the lack of vigilant county reporting is alarming in Cuyahoga County, given the corruption scandal and the remorse of local media in the aftermath. It's especially troublesome given Cleveland.com VP for Content Chris Quinn's own feelings on the matter, as articulated in an editorial in November 2015, titled "Why the Jimmy Dimora wiretaps are vital to our future."

"The chief lesson learned from the county corruption crisis, which broke into our collective consciousness with a massive FBI raid in the summer of 2008, is that we can never again relax our vigilance over those we elect to govern," wrote Quinn. "Not the voters. Not the criminal investigators. Not the media. And yes, I know, we in the media dropped the ball. The Plain Dealer repeatedly endorsed these criminals, and the news team that I oversaw at the newspaper did not catch the corruption before the FBI did. For all of you who repeatedly note our lapse, I've said before and say it again: We blew it, and I humbly apologize."

So where is the vigilant reporting today?

Karen Farkas managed to write a short piece about County Inspector General Mark Griffin last week, in between coverage of a frat controversy at Case, a mock border wall at John Carroll and the announcement of a film school at CSU. Griffin, who was appointed by Budish last year, replaced Nailah Byrd as Inspector General. Byrd had ruffled feathers when she publicly investigated County Executive Ed FitzGerald for his driver's license lapse. Word was Budish wasn't pleased. The Inspector General's office was created in 2012 by County Council to investigate fraud and ethics violations, but Griffin said he's now "shifting focus slightly." He wants to pursue investigations that will "save taxpayers money." That's in line with Budish's stated goals of efficiency, but it means he's steering away from Human Resources investigations.

Perhaps that's a sound idea. Perhaps not. But whether it's consistent with what County Council intended when they created the office in 2012 remains unclear.

Anna Clark is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. She, too, has registered the steep decline in the coverage of local governments.

"There's no other way to put this," she said, "It's dangerous. It diminishes accountability for the people who are working on behalf of local citizens, and, as we've seen in places like Flint, the consequences can be devastating."

Legendary Cleveland journalist Roldo Bartimole, who's long decried The Plain Dealer's support of major institutions, speculated that county government is going to continue to have major financial problems on its hands, but that the county executive shouldn't sweat it.

"Budish has it easy," Bartimole said, "because no one's paying much attention."

**

NO ONE — CERTAINLY NOT SCENE — has paid enough attention to Budish's lengthy delays in the hiring of county directors. Councilman Jack Schron, from his first-floor office at Jergens in Collinwood, said that it's one of the most confounding elements of Budish's leadership, the fact that he didn't have a team "waiting in the wings" when he took over.

"When your house needs fixed," Schron said, "the first thing you do is get your house in order before you start putting new additions on."

Two of the most important positions in the county — the Director of Economic Development and the Director of Health and Human Services — were filled for months on an interim basis.

Only in December, after a national search funded by the Greater Cleveland Partnership, was Ted Carter appointed Chief Economic Development Officer. Carter arrived from Jacksonville, Florida, and was hired along with three other chiefs — of Transformation, Talent and Innovation.

In a PR blunder, the county initially announced that they'd be paying the $140,000 salary for the Chief Innovation Officer, Daro Mott, out of a Cleveland Foundation grant. A County spokesperson later told Scene that to avoid any appearance of impropriety, the Cleveland Foundation grant would go into a general pool and not fund the salary directly.

Ed FitzGerald's former chief of staff, Matt Carroll, (a friend of Budish's current chief of staff Sharon Sobol Jordan) had been serving as Interim Director of Health and Human Services for Budish's entire term. On March 22, Budish wanted to pass an emergency resolution to keep Carroll on as Interim Director, but County Council said no, voting 7-3 against Carroll. This was unprecedented, but Jack Schron said the opposition was generally because council had grown weary of reappointments after 16 months.

Anyway, at the April 12 County Council meeting, a full-time director was appointed at last. Thomas Pristow, who was formerly the director of the county's Division of Child and Family Services, took over the post.

The delay in these major appointments has created (at best) a purgatorial uncertainty at county HQ, one former employee said. And council members said they feel more like they're just maintaining the government, as opposed to participating in any sort of transformative, innovative culture.

The county executive's term is four years. Imagine if the president of the United States wasted a quarter of his term on a "national search" for key cabinet members. It'd be unthinkable.

Nonetheless, County Council folks did provide endorsements of Budish as a person:

Councilman Mike Gallagher said that Budish has by and large been "diligent and accessible" as the executive, and that the general public likely can't appreciate the scope of his job.

Councilwoman Sunny Simon said she's been pleased with how Budish has embraced the sustainability department, abolished under FitzGerald and reinstated due largely to Simon's advocacy. "He's been fully supportive," Simon said, "and we've got a really dynamic department now that's going to be able to do a lot of things. I'm really proud and pleased with the executive's support."

Schron credited Budish for his active engagement with the business community. "He's committed to business improvement and efficiency," he said.

Councilman Dave Greenspan said he appreciates the executive's continued outreach to council on various issues. "That was not the case in the past," Greenspan said. "Council was not viewed as a co-equal branch of government. The general perception now is that council is more respected and has been asked to be more engaged. I think by doing that, there's a belief that our county is moving again in the right direction."

If not the county, than at least the County Council salaries. Even as council has been "merely maintaining" a government that they and others acknowledge has failed to get off the ground, they did find time to pass legislation (in a 7-4 vote, Feb. 9) that will raise their own salaries in 2019. The part-time positions, which now pay $45,000 per year, will soon pay $52,000 and be subject to the same increases that non-union county employees receive, beginning in 2020.

(Scene contacted all 11 County Council members for this story. The four who got back to us — above — are also the four who voted against their own salary increase.)

**

ARMOND BUDISH ROCKED IN HIS CHAIR, gazed at the miniature pink elephant before him, and said that the "Innovation Centers" at Cuyahoga County libraries were "an important first step" on a "continuum for an innovation culture."

Opening library Innovation Centers was one of six specific initiatives announced at last year's State of the County address. One of the three proposed centers, at the Garfield Heights branch, opened in February. The other two, at Mayfield and Parma-Snow, are slated to open at the end of April.

The Garfield Heights location houses, among other things, the 3D printer on which Budish's mini pink elephant was made.

"It's very exciting," Budish said.

Here are the three other initiatives announced at last year's State of the County that, on paper, Budish has accomplished (which we'll embolden to help you skim):

1) Loaning $2 million to ECDI, the Columbus-based micro-lending outfit with an office in Cleveland. The county's loan will be maintained by ECDI and then loaned out in $10,000-$100,000 chunks to small businesses who have had difficulty obtaining traditional financing. (The Plum Cafe, now open in Ohio City, was the recipient of such a loan.)

2) Loaning $4.5 million to JumpStart for two funds that make larger loans to "high-growth, high-tech" startups. JumpStart's CEO Ray Leach told Scene that Cuyahoga County is the only county in Ohio to partner with an organization like JumpStart in order to make investments in early-stage companies. After the much-publicized departure of Phenom founder Brian Verne, to San Francisco, who argued that investors in Cleveland were too risk-averse, Budish said these county loans were critical.

"That's exactly what we're responding to," Budish told Scene. "We don't have the same kind of venture capital or early-stage funders that the coasts have, so we wanted to incentivize the creation of that funding here on a more robust basis."

It's also part of Budish's response to the business community, enhancing access to capital. Budish said that the county's $4.5 million investment has leveraged $30 million in additional funding, but critics might argue — in fact one did, to Scene — that that language was slightly disingenuous: If you put a cherry on top of a sundae, did you leverage the sundae? Or was the ice cream already there?

Ray Leach said that though the money in the $20 million "NEXT" Fund and the $10 million "Evergreen" fund existed before the county's loan, the county was one of the largest individual limited partners.

3) Appointing Fred DeGrandis as Managing Director of the Global Center for Health Innovation and establishing the Executive Advisory Council: "Leading, tremendous, smart, best," etc. Beetlejuice!

But two other initiatives announced last year are still awaiting action. One was a commitment to make the innovation economy more inclusive by creating a Community Benefits Agreement and passing other pieces of legislation aimed at assisting women- and minority- owned businesses. ("Fairness and equity for all persons," recall.) The other, in the service of creating a streamlined government, was to repurpose a member of the Economic Development Department as a "Small Business Ombudsman."

When Budish spoke with Scene in late March, the language he used was roughly identical to his speech in April 2015. He spoke of a disparity study and a robust set of initiatives to address the problem.

"I'm very excited that five or six pieces of legislation are before council right now," he said.

But what has taken so long? The county didn't even create its own Community Benefits Agreement. Council merely resolved to endorse the City of Cleveland's CBA. And that happened in March, nearly a year after Budish claimed he wanted one on the books "as soon as possible."

No Small Business Ombudsman exists yet, either.

"It will happen," Budish assured Scene. "We were waiting to hire our permanent economic development director, so we went through a fairly lengthy process to do that. It was a national search, so it took a while. One of his first orders of business will be to set that up."

**

ONE FORMER HIGH-RANKING county employee characterized Budish's first year in office as "the weirdest ever," and stated flatly that the current county executive had "no clue" what county government was supposed to achieve. Worse yet, they said, was the fact that he didn't appear to want to know. Budish is not Jimmy Dimora and he has a functional driver's license, and that's something, but should we be satisfied? Should we be energized? This is a man about whom the first reaction tends to be either "Who?" or "Meh."

Nevertheless, when Budish speaks on April 21, he will sincerely preach the gospel of Cuyahoga County's momentum — even cynics agree he is nothing if not earnest. He will lavish praise upon the upcoming RNC, cite Cleveland's recent favorable media coverage, and maybe even announce one or two programs related to the workforce question. Everything will be tremendous and exciting and robust.

But from the bowels of the Convention Center, one might have occasion to recall the pep-squad call to arms with which Budish concluded his remarks last year. "We have lots to do," he said, "and there's no time to waste."

The elephant in the room — and not the mini pink one — is that he hasn't done much, and it's taking forever.

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