April 15, 2010

Group seeks overhaul of county government

Charter proposal could come before voters in Nov.

By MARK TODD – mtodd@starbeacon.comStar Beacon

JEFFERSON —  If residents agree, a historic makeover of Ashtabula County government could come before voters in November.

A committee created last fall is floating the idea of a charter form of government that would replace the three county commissioners with an elected seven-person council that would hire a professional county executive.

The executive, in turn, would appoint most of the other county officials, who presently are elected.

The group, called the Committee for Ashtabula County Reform, is taking its cue from a similar system in place for years in Summit County and one adopted in November by Cuyahoga County voters, said member and attorney Kyle Smith of Conneaut.

Action in those counties made committee members aware that Ashtabula County’s form of government, in place for more than 150 years, is not immovable. Options exist under the Ohio Constitution, members said.

“No one is aware we have choices (regarding government structure),” Smith said Wednesday. “We want to help people understand we have a choice.”

A draft version of the committee’s proposal can be viewed on its Web site (ashtabulacountyreform. com).

The proposal is a work in progress, and comments and suggestions are welcome, Smith said.

“Nothing at this point is carved in stone,” he said. “We want to see what people think.”

Another member, attorney Nicholas Iarocci, agreed.

“The county would be in a better position for more-efficient and professional management if the charter were adopted,” he said.

In addition to Smith and Iarocci, other members who lent their name to the statement include William Bobulsky, Richard Dana, Dan Madden, Virginia Miller, Gary Pasqualone, Stuart Cordell, David McCombs, James Nizen, Kenneth Piper and Edward Somppi. Many of the members are attorneys.

Members plan to start circulating petitions during the coming weeks to gain the signatures needed to place the initiative on the general-election ballot.

“We are seeking the input of all county residents regarding the proposed charter,” according to a statement issued by the group. “We have a goal of obtaining 5,000 signatures no later than July 6 to place the charter on the ballot.”

“We want a period of comment before the petition drive,” Smith said.

If approved, voters would pick the council in 2012, and the charter would take effect Jan. 1, 2013, according to the statement. At that time, the new county executive would appoint county officials, or reappoint incumbents.

Members stress their charter is not intended as a criticism of any official. Instead, it’s meant to improve performance and efficiency.

“Despite the efforts of the individuals who have been elected and appointed to county office, our county government has been, and continues to be, fragmented and in crisis,” according to the statement. “Serving both as legislators and administrators, our commissioners have virtually no day-to-day authority over the eight departments headed by other elected officials.

“Clear accountability, and measurable performance of our elected county officers, is nearly impossible to establish because it occurs, or does not occur, piecemeal, in partisan elections held at four-year intervals.

“Ashtabula County government is, in reality, a business that supplies an array of professional services, manages an annual budget in the tens of millions of dollars, deals with multiple collective-bargaining units, and employs and supervises hundreds of employees.,” according to the statement. “Like any other business of that scope and magnitude, it can neither survive or prosper without both professional management and financial expertise.

“Our present form of county government, despite the earnest efforts of the elected officials, (assures) neither,” according to the statement.

The proposal would split the county into five districts, and one council member would represent each district. The remaining two council persons would be at-large members. The charter would create the position of county executive, hired by the council.

The executive, in turn, would appoint positions now elected, including recorder, treasurer, sheriff, coroner, engineer, clerk of courts and auditor. The prosecutor’s job could be split into civil and criminal divisions, with one segment elected to ensure no political interference, members said.

The charter would have no impact on townships, villages or cities, and is “not designed to advance the interests of any political party.”

Reaction to the committee’s proposal was muted. Officials reached for comment Wednesday said they were aware of the group’s interest in a government redo but did not know specifics of the plan.

The three commissioners wondered whether residents are ready to surrender their say in picking county officials.

“I’m open to listen to anything that moves (the county) forward,” said Commissioner Daniel Claypool. “We already have a professional administrator with a master’s degree. Are we taking away the people’s right to vote? Now, they can voice their concerns at the ballot box.”

Commissioner Peggy Carlo said she believed residents should be able to vote on the matter, but had some concerns.

“Change is not always bad, but I don’t see (the charter) saving the county of Ashtabula any money,” she said. “We are the government. Where are the checks and balances?”

Commissioner Joseph Moroski said he couldn’t comment without studying the proposal, but asked whether the plan would result in a “reduced” role for voters.

“It leaves voters out of the process,” he said. “Voters like the opportunity to control government, not a county executive.”

Other county officials reached for comment Wednesday were reserved in their responses. Clerk of Courts Carol Mead said she has faith in the election process; County Prosecutor Thomas Sartini said the idea should prompt some dialogue.

“Personally, I’m for anything that helps Ashtabula County,” Sartini said.

Additional expertise in county finances would be a plus, he said, but cautioned that “there’s only so much money, regardless of who’s doling it out.”

County Auditor Roger Corlett said he’s “all for dialogue (on county government)” but said the committee’s idea needs careful study. “There’s got to be an awful lot of discussion.”

Sheriff William Johnson, whose department has been sliced because of budget woes, said he hasn’t given the charter proposal much thought.

“I’ve got major issues to address,” he said. “That’s the least of my worries.”

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