County Prosecutor Michael O'Malley is among the growing crowd that thinks that the Cuyahoga County Sheriff should be an elected position and no longer an appointment by the County Executive. And that would be at the very least, he says, in terms of reforms he believes are needed for the reformed county government, which is looking as problematic as the county government that voters tossed out the door back in 2009.
"I was in this government prior to reform," O'Malley says. "And I was in it after, and I'm in it now as an administrator, and I see so many issues. I didn't come out publicly for or against the reform at the time, but when I went into the voting booth I supported it. But now that I've experienced what I've experienced over the past couple of years, there are significant challenges this government has created, and I think what we're seeing with the jail is part of that."
In the wake of Dimora and Russo and company, Cuyahoga County voters overwhelmingly approved a sweeping change to county government 10 years ago by a 2-1 margin. Among the many changes in the new charter, the Sheriff, as well as the Treasurer and Medical Examiner and other departments, were layered beneath the executive office and their heads were made appointment positions.
Now, in the wake of a year of deaths and inhumane conditions in the Cuyahoga County Jail, as corruption investigations continue to unspool and indictments continue to be handed out, both at the jail and across the IT department, there's momentum behind returning the Sheriff to the ballot. County council said in December 2018 that it would likely consider the issue sometime this year. Any amendments to the charter would need to be approved by voters.
O'Malley, who says he would return other administrator positions to the voters as well, has two main reasons: budgets and continuity.
"In the old form of government, you had commissioners and you had a professional county administrator who ran the government on a day-to-day basis," he says. "You come in and state your budget needs, and you're responsible for your department and you're answerable to the voters. There was an impartial body you could make your case to. Now, we have a council that ultimately decides on the budgeting but there has been so much power consolidated under the executive — Auditor, Sheriff, Clerk of Courts, Recorder — all under one individual, and none of these people can come in front of council and, without fear of reprisal, speak the truth. We've seen what has happened when people do that now. We've seen the results."
(He's speaking of former jail nursing director Gary Brack, who appeared before council last year to honestly relate his critical concerns about healthcare in the jail and who was summarily fired by Metro, at the personal behest of Armond Budish, that same week.)
Like other, but not all, department heads, O'Malley was tasked with cuts to his budget the past two years — $1.5 million per year. The Sheriff's department also saw cuts, which he believes runs a clear through-line to the multitudes of issues that have dotted headlines.
"I think the county Sheriff is handcuffed as to speaking the truth," O'Malley says, "because he is an appointee and will be eliminated if what he says is not consistent with the marching orders he receives from above. He not only was told to take a budget cut, but he was also directed to take Cleveland's prisoners, but no one in the Sheriff's department thought it was a good idea or that they were prepared to do that."
In addition to what he feels is a power structure built such that the Sheriff and others don't have an avenue to fairly articulate the needs of their department, O'Malley says the current umbrella of departments under the executive branch means dangerous turnover.
"Because all of those departments are underneath the executive, it will inevitably lead to change in leadership in all those areas any time there's a turnover, which we have now seen twice in 10 years," he says. "Under the old government, the county was like a bunch of teeth in a gear, so when one tooth goes missing or there's a change, the rest of them still function. It will spin. Now, wholesale change ... it can be cataclysmic, it can downgrade the whole quality of the organization."
With indictments, surprise retirements and resignations, one doesn't even need a new executive to walk through the door to cause drastic change, as we've seen in Budish's tenure. But another transition in three years could be even more widespread and dire.
At the end of the day, the decision to hold the Sheriff accountable should rest with the voters, not the executive, O'Malley says.
"I don't think they're properly funding the departments, and I don't think for a minute if Bob Reid was still Sheriff what happened at the jail would have occurred. The voters would not accept what is going on now. There would be an urgency to the situation."
Reid retained his title as Sheriff after county reform as one of only two top elected officials Ed FitzGerald retained. He resigned at the request of FitzGerald in 2013. Frank Bova succeeded him. Budish appointed Cliff Pinkney to take over in 2015. Pinkney, who is at the top of the jail leadership chain, has somehow avoided being tied up in the mess so far.
In addition to returning the Sheriff, at a minimum, to an elected role, O'Malley also says there should be an independent budgetary office in lieu of the current system.
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