The public has discovered the first bump in the so-called "road to reform," and open government advocates are not pleased.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has asked Cuyahoga County transition leaders to open up transition committee meetings to the public and media. “Transparency is absolutely essential to build public trust and ensure that officials are serving the people,” says Christine Link, executive director of ACLU Ohio.
The ACLU’s request comes a day after transition co-chairs Zanotti and Jim McCafferty appeared on WCPN’s “Sound of Ideas” radio show. During the show, Zanotti and McCafferty told host Dan Moulthrop that reporters and citizens wouldn't necessarily be allowed into all meetings.
A dozen committees will meet throughout 2010 to craft recommendations for Cuyahoga County’s new charter government, which goes into effect January 1, 2011. Voters adopted the charter last fall during a campaign in which Zanotti and other proponents promised government reform.
“It is an inherent contradiction that an advisory committee meant to reform county government wishes to do so behind closed doors without the full participation of the public,” says Link in a news release.
McCafferty, the county’s chief administrator, was appointed by the county board of commissioners to oversee the transition process, in compliance with the newly adopted charter. However, McCafferty has invited Zanotti — a leader in last year’s campaign for a new county government — to help oversee the process. Zanotti’s involvement has been questioned by critics, some who say that Zanotti is not qualified or simply shouldn’t be involved because of questionable political motives. (Zanotti has repeatedly said he will not run for the county's new leadership position.)
Zanotti and McCafferty announced the transition committees two weeks ago and said at the time that not all meetings would be held publicly. The committees are stacked heavily with corporate executives and county administrators; not one sitting elected county official is involved, which seems to be why Zanotti argues that Ohio's public meeting (or "sunshine") laws do not apply.
On Tuesday's radio broadcast, Zanotti shared his reasoning for keeping the meetings closed with Moulthrop. Reporters, says Zanotti, will distract the work sessions. He also said notifying the public of the meetings would not be “feasible.”
Zanotti could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but McCafferty tells Scene that a seven-member transition executive committee will consider the ACLU's request. "I agree 100 percent that people need to know what's going on," says McCafferty. However, he said, some work sessions could include "dicey" conversations about the county workforce.
The transition executive committee includes McCafferty, Zanotti, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Jerry Sue Thornton of Cuyahoga Community College; and three corporate executives: Randy McShepard of Medina-based RPM International; Alexander "Sandy" Cutler of Eaton Corp.; Tom Zenty of University Hospitals; and Jerry Sue Thornton
McCafferty says committees have already started meeting behind closed doors. As of Wednesday morning, transition leaders had not set a date for the first public session.
The issue isn’t lost on some candidates running for the newly created county executive position. “They have to figure out a way to open these [meetings] up to the public,” says Matt Dolan, a Republican who announced his candidacy Tuesday. “We’ve got to end this … There can’t be any perception of any backroom deals or that there is a personal/private agenda. I don’t think that’s the case, but let’s take it out of the equation.”
Making the effort more public will give legitimacy and weight to the recommendations for the new government, says Dolan. “When you receive a recommendation that has the backing of the public and has been exposed to the public and they’re saying ‘this is something we want the new government to do’… that will empower people to carry it through."
Another county executive contender, Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald, also called for openness in the process and said the decision to have closed meetings is a “mistake.”
“Closed meetings or executive sessions should only be condoned in extremely rare instances, such as employee disciplinary hearings or litigation matters, none of which would be considered by transition group committees,” FitzGerald says in a written statement (those are the exceptions allowed under Ohio law). “I am urging the leadership of the transition process to reconsider this decision immediately.”
This isn’t the first time the ACLU has voiced concerns over something involving Zanotti. When he was mayor of Parma Heights, the ACLU sued him and the city in federal court after three citizens — including a mayoral candidate — accused the city of suppressing their freedom of speech. Most of their arguments were dismissed, but a federal judge ordered Parma Heights not to trample on the candidates' right to campaign freely. — Damian Guevara