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A Different Spin on County Government

Regional leaders get a first-hand look at the County Executive model in Cuyahoga and Summit counties.

by David Holthaus

More than 15 years ago (July 28, 2008, to be exact), a tipping point occurred in Ohio’s largest county. Armed with search warrants, more than 100 federal agents fanned out across Cuyahoga County and its major city, Cleveland, as a wide-ranging, year-long corruption investigation suddenly broke into public view.

The investigation revealed an ingrained pay-to-play culture in county government and beyond. Ultimately, more than 70 government officials—employees, contractors, business leaders, and even two judges—were convicted in a case that took years to resolve. The biggest catch in the federal net was Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, who essentially ran politics as a corrupt enterprise for years through bribes, kickbacks, junkets, and home remodeling work in exchange for doling out county jobs and contracts. A jury convicted Dimora of more than 30 corruption charges and delivered a 28-year sentence. He was released from federal prison in June 2023 after serving 11 years.

The episode was so shocking that, one year after the raid, citizens of Cuyahoga County voted to overhaul their local government, approving a groundbreaking change to a structure led by a single elected County Executive. Cuyahoga became only the second Ohio county to be governed by an office that might be compared to a county mayor. Eighty-six of Ohio’s 88 counties are governed by the system that’s in effect in Hamilton, Butler, Clermont, and Warren counties: a three-member elected board of commissioners.

Advocates of the County Executive government structure say it can be more efficient, can lead more quickly to tangible results, fosters collaboration among community leaders, and enhances the accountability of local government to voters. “It gives the executive an opportunity to work with the public to cast a vision,” says Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne.

In October, a group of Cincinnati regional leaders received a firsthand introduction to the County Executive system. The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber sponsored a Leadership Exchange trip to Cuyahoga County and to Summit County—the other governed by a County Executive—a trip that included learning sessions with the leaders of both counties and briefings on how the system is working in those Northeast Ohio locales.

“It was really valuable to meet and hear from peer-city leaders, particularly ones with similar challenges with growth, aging infrastructure, and aging population,” says Anne Sesler, a consultant and vice chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party who attended the trip. “We have the same goals of growing our regions, so it was interesting to hear about their approach.”

Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne says the office “gives the executive an opportunity to work with the public to cast a vision” for large projects such as a convention center.

The citizens of Cuyahoga and Summit elect a County Executive to four-year terms, and the positions have no term limits. The systems in the two counties are structured somewhat differently. In Cuyahoga, the executive enjoys considerable sway over the county as a whole by appointing other county office holders such as the Treasurer, the Clerk of Courts, and even the Sheriff.

That kind of arrangement allows the executive to appoint qualified people who may not have the stomach for running a political campaign for public office, says Ronayne. “It takes a bit of the politics out of the jobs of the professional offices,” he says. “Not every accountant is a retail politician, but he or she might make a good Treasurer. It does professionalize government.”

Cuyahoga is the only Ohio county where the Sheriff is appointed rather than elected, putting the County Executive there in charge of not only the administrative offices but also law enforcement and jail operations. Ronayne likens the arrangement to city police chiefs in Ohio, where the chief is appointed by the mayor. “My philosophy with law enforcement is to let them do their job,” Ronayne says. “We have conversations about budget, but I let the leader do his job.”

But the arrangement hasn’t been without controversy. The Sheriff-Executive reporting structure has been blamed in part on the turnover in the Sheriff’s office, as six Cuyahoga Sheriffs have resigned in the last 12 years, the last departing in February 2023.

The organizational structure in Summit County is different, as the Sheriff, Clerk of Courts, Treasurer, and Engineer are independently elected—as in all other Ohio counties—rather than appointed by the County Executive. Prosecutors in both counties are elected. The County Executives must work with a County Council but do not answer directly to councilmembers, only to voters.

Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro, who was a business leader before entering politics, says the structure allows her to manage county government more like a business. “I see my role to be very strategic, very facilitative, very relationship driven,” she says. “This looks more like an enterprise structure with a council. I liken it to the council being the board of directors and me being the CEO running the operation on a day-to-day basis.”

That businesslike operation sounds like a far cry from the way Summit County government operated in the 1970s. A string of scandals involving county officials brought Geraldo Rivera and his national TV program 20/20 to the county’s biggest city, Akron, to investigate. The most salacious story involved a judge who was accused of trading leniency in his court for sexual favors.

There was also the county auditor who went to prison on federal corruption charges, a sheriff who pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and resigned, and a police captain and a coroner’s investigator who pleaded guilty to mishandling confiscated guns. On top of all that, the county’s budget was plagued by cost overruns and a bloated payroll.

Earlier efforts at reform had failed, but this corruption was finally too much. A group of corporate leaders, with the help of The Akron Beacon Journal editorial board and some elected officials, pushed for a change from a three-person commissioner form of government to a County Executive.

Their campaign slogan was disarmingly simple: “Vote yes on Issue 2: It’s got to be better.” The campaign succeeded. Summit County voters in 1979 approved a new county charter and a County Executive government system.

Although the change in both counties grew out of scandal, both office holders say the structure has provided for more local control, better efficiency, more professionalism, and less politics. It also provides for better accountability in the eyes of the voters, says Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.

“When you have so many elected, independent officers, from the perspective of the citizen, it’s a little difficult to assign blame or responsibility to any one person,” he says. “But a County Executive has responsibility for making sure that the county appointees are doing their job and making sure there aren’t too many misdeeds going on. And if there are problems, it’s easier to assign responsibility.”

Both county executives point to achievements they say were accomplished in a timelier way because their counties were governed by a single executive.

Ronayne, who took office in January 2023, describes the creation of a new Department of Housing and Community Development to focus on affordable housing and supporting unhoused people. He’s pledged to reduce homelessness by 25 percent by 2028. He also hired a Senior Adviser of Transportation to be the point person in working with other county departments on transportation policy, services, and infrastructure. “We addressed housing and transportation at the administrative level, and we’re really proud we got that done,” he says.

In September, Ronayne announced the creation of a Women’s Health Advisory Council to recommend ways to reduce racial disparities and improve access to health care. That same month, Cuyahoga County Council agreed to buy land for a new jail and public services campus, an issue that’s been a political hot potato for five years.

Others cite Cleveland’s lakefront development as a signature achievement. The development, which has built a new football stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and remains ongoing, preceded Ronayne’s time in office, but he was closely involved in the efforts when he was Planning Director for the city of Cleveland.

In Summit County, Shapiro points to her early action to sue corporations involved in making and distributing opioids. In 2017, she declared a countywide state of emergency over the opioid addiction crisis and then filed a civil lawsuit accusing more than a dozen manufacturers and distributors of negligence and deceptive marketing practices. The county eventually received more than $100 million in settlements, which has been used for addiction and recovery services.

The declaration of a public health emergency opened up funding, allowed for coordination among the county’s various agencies, and enabled the use of the county emergency services command center as a response hub, says Shapiro. “We went to County Council and said, We’re going to do this and you need to be OK with it,” she recalls. “And they were all OK with it.”

When negotiations began with the drug corporations, she kept council informed but told them she would need to move quickly and couldn’t seek council approval for every agreement. “We were able to move as quickly as we needed to do because they had confidence in me,” says Shapiro. “The structure enables the ability to move as fast as you need to move to get some stuff done.”

She also cited the county’s quick action in getting federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act into the hands of the people and businesses who needed it after the pandemic shut down businesses and schools and threatened hospitals. Summit County received $94 million from the act, and Shapiro’s office worked with the Greater Akron Chamber and other organizations to distribute the funding where it was needed—including to COVID testing, payroll for police and first responders in communities across the county, schools, rent and mortgage assistance, small businesses, and arts organizations.

“We sat down and looked at what we needed, and we got that money into folks’ hands as quickly as they needed it,” says Shapiro.

She says her office works closely with political leadership in Akron as well as with 30 other municipalities. “We work across party and geographic lines to get things done,” she says. In 2019, she launched Summit4Success, an economic development program to encourage businesses to relocate to the county.

Shapiro, a Democrat, is the first woman in Summit County (and in Ohio) to hold the County Executive office. Previously a small-business owner and corporate executive, she ran for County Council at the urging of local officeholders and was one of the top vote-getters. She became council president, and when the County Executive died in office she was appointed to replace him.

Voters elected Shapiro to the office in 2016 and re-elected her in 2020. She has announced plans to run for a third full term in 2024.

Ronayne, also a Democrat, began his political career as a campaign manager and planning manager for Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell. From 2005 to 2021, he was president of University Circle Inc., a nonprofit organization similar to Cincinnati’s Uptown Consortium, which leads community development in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood. He ran for County Executive for the first time in 2022 and won with 64 percent of the vote.

While Cuyahoga and Summit remain the only Ohio counties with the single executive form of government, the structure has been studied elsewhere in the state. In 2016, a group called Dayton Together proposed changing the governmental structure of that city and surrounding Montgomery County. The group included former Ohio Lieutenant Governor Paul Leonard and former Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley, who proposed a structure with an elected County Executive and County Council. A key part of its plan was a merger of Dayton and Montgomery County governments, which may have contributed to its failure. The proposal was withdrawn later that year after opposition from minority-led citizen groups and the possibility of legal challenges.

The experience in Montgomery County illustrates the obstacles that can arise in proposing a government makeover. Dozens of elected county officials, organized labor groups, and prominent members of Dayton’s Black community denounced the idea, saying it would limit the authority and independence of elected county officials and reduce them to administrative appointees.

“It goes back to the question of centralizing power,” says OSU’s Asher of the chief argument against the County Executive system. “On the one hand, you can argue it’s more likely that you get something through with an executive form of government. The flip side of that would be: Do you want to make it easier to get things through?”

While Ohio grew up with a three-member county commissioner form of government, Kentucky has utilized a single executive structure since the Commonwealth was founded. The Kentucky of the 18th Century was a frontier where the Justice of the Peace was the most important local official, and his responsibilities included administrative matters. In its Constitution of 1850, Kentucky provided for a County Judge to preside over the County Court, which in addition to hearing appeals from local justices of the peace also served as the county’s legislative and administrative authority.

Over the years, Kentucky’s legislature added executive and administrative functions to the County Judge roles. In the mid-1970s, the General Assembly stripped away judicial responsibilities but clarified the role to be the county’s chief executive officer, changing the title to Judge/Executive. In Northern Kentucky, Steve Pendery has served as Campbell County Judge/Executive for 25 years, Gary Moore has led Boone County for 25 years, and Kris Knochelmann has led Kenton County for nine years.

In the two Ohio counties, as well as in Kentucky, the elected executives are not absolute rulers. Far from it. They still must work with elected county boards, similar to how a mayor works with a city council. In Cuyahoga and Summit, County Executives serve alongside an 11-member council, which puts an emphasis on a person who can govern efficiently but also collaboratively by managing multiple constituencies and stakeholders while also being productive.

“For me, it’s always about the people,” says Marcus Thompson, an executive with TriVersity Construction who attended the Leadership Exchange trip. “Is it the system that’s put in place, or is it the people that make it work?”

That’s a thought shared by Summit County Executive Shapiro. “To be honest with you, this government is only as good as the people who are at the helm and the people doing the work,” she says.