To the Editorial Board of the Plain Dealer:
When the voters of Cuyahoga County approved the charter in 2009, even the strongest proponents of the new county government recognized that modest adjustments would need to be made over the first few years. Since the time the charter was enacted, County Council has endeavored to prioritize the most urgent issues facing county government when placing charter amendments on the ballot. The voters have generously supported all six measures endorsed by County Council, but there is still important work to be done.
The voters of Cuyahoga County will consider four new charter amendments this November. Two of these measures, Issues 11 & 12, failed to receive the endorsement of the Plain Dealer’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board alleged that these two amendments “smack of empire-building” by County Council. We would like to take this opportunity to clarify why Council placed these measures on the ballot, and why they merit serious consideration by the citizens of Cuyahoga County.
Issue 11 – This measure would correct lingering problems with the county charter’s residency requirements pertaining to elected officials. It would make two notable changes: (1) require the County Executive to reside in Cuyahoga County for at least two years before filing for office – the same requirement that currently applies to members of County Council – and (2) allow members of County Council to complete the four-year terms to which they are elected, even if the districts they represent are redrawn after the decennial census.
The substance of this charter amendment was unanimously recommended by the independent, bipartisan Charter Review Commission in 2013, and also received unanimous support from County Council earlier this year. This amendment would strengthen the County’s democratic system by establishing consistent residency criteria and avoiding unnecessary vacancies that would result in interim appointments made by political parties.
Issue 12 – This measure would make the County Audit Committee more independent by establishing a five-member committee made up of three independent auditing experts and two members of County Council. For those unfamiliar with the county’s internal auditing process, the audit committee oversees the Department of Internal Auditing, which acts as an independent watch-dog over the county’s finances. The entire purpose of having this audit committee is to prevent county management from improperly interfering in the auditing process. Perplexingly, both the County Executive and Fiscal Officer, two of the highest-level managers at the County, currently serve on the audit committee. Giving management this type of oversight of the auditing process runs contrary to both common sense and established best practices.
As pointed out by the League of Women Voters: “it is important that the members of the County Audit Committee be independent of those very departments and agencies they are responsible for auditing. There is a conflict of interest as the Charter now reads, and this amendment would fix it.” Moreover, the model legislative guidelines established by the Association of Local Government Auditors stress the importance that audit committees should be “independent of management,” and note that “inclusion of legislators as well as community members with appropriate qualifications can augment the expertise of the committee, and prevent undue reliance on management.”
Both the Auditor of State’s office and the County’s Director of Internal Auditing have expressed serious concerns over the current composition of the audit committee. Passage of Issue 12 would bring the county in-line with the model legislative guidelines and standard accounting practices.
To suggest Issues 11 & 12 “smack of empire-building” is a gross mischaracterization of these charter amendments. Both of these items are prudent measures that promote transparency and have received unqualified support from interested stakeholders. County voters should adopt these good-government proposals and keep the momentum going.
C. Ellen Connally
County Council President
Chairman, Finance and Budgeting Committee
Chairman, Council Operations and Intergovernmental Relations Committee