Every election, Ohioans are asked to vote for unopposed local candidates running for elected positions many voters don’t really understand.
There are 19,559 elected posts in state and local governments in Ohio, according to a CentralOhio.com count of lists from the secretary of state’s office and the Supreme Court of Ohio. This count includes officials who set policy, such as mayors, county commissioners, school board members and state representatives. It also includes administrative positions, such as county engineers, village solicitors and state treasurer — jobs that are reactive to the will of policymakers.
Cuyahoga County’s switch to a charter government in 2009 provided Ohio with its second example of a more centralized county government structure. Thirty years earlier, the first was Summit County, where an elected fiscal officer shares the responsibilities of a county auditor, treasurer and recorder, among other departures from the norm.
University of Akron associate professor Stephen Brooks said voters like having individuals “right at the front door” that they themselves have chosen, even if there’s evidence to suggest the sheer number of elections lowers voter turnout and thins the pool of candidates qualified for public service.
Having to win an election to take office means those officials answer only to the people, said Fredrick Pausch, the executive director of the County Engineers of Ohio Association. If they were at-will employees of the commissioners, they would be beholden to the board’s agenda — right or wrong.
“We feel as an elected officer there is a check and balance there,” Pausch said. “This autonomy kind of sets Ohio apart.”
However, in many instances, an appointment is taking place — by a political party’s central committee. Only three of 87 county engineer elections were contested in November’s elections, according to archived results on the Ohio secretary of state’s website. In only four counties did voters have two options from which to choose a county coroner.
“Now we’ve gone from it’s not a general (election), it’s not a primary, it’s a tiny number of people (making this decision),” said Ted Stevenot, president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, a tea party group. “This has warped and twisted the system.”
The League of Women Voters of Ohio, a political advocacy organization that argues for election reform, long has sought to change the way judges are elected in Ohio.
Co-president Nancy Brown said voters don’t know much about the role of a judge and what they can and can’t do under the law. These aren’t political positions, and shoehorning that element into the job drives away people who lack political skills, she said.
“Many people who would make excellent judges don’t want to get into that arena, don’t want to have to raise money. … I bet you’d find the same thing, too, with coroners and county engineers,” she said.
A reduction in elected officials would be a side-effect of “right-sizing” as Gene Krebs, a former lawmaker, puts it — or consolidation, as it more commonly is known.
Krebs, a member of the shared-services facilitating Local Government Innovation Council, said combining counties and cities, where appropriate, is a means to cutting administrative costs.
David Corey, executive director of the Ohio State Coroners Association, said taxpayers lose the objectivity of an independent coroner and in return they have to pay more for his or her replacement.
“I find it kind of ironic that one of the selling points in Cuyahoga County was that having appointed officials instead of elected will save the county money,” Corey said. “Well, we know for a fact that’s not the case in Cuyahoga County.”
That county’s medical examiner was hired on at a $225,000 salary, according to a report in the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. The elected coroner post he replaced was paid $121,323, a registry from the secretary of state’s office shows.
The configuration of government in Ohio hasn’t changed appreciably in 100 years, Krebs said, even though Ohioans are interacting with government differently. This includes who the public elects versus who is appointed by someone else voters elected, he said.
“Our governmental structure hasn’t changed since your grandpa hooked up horses to take the buggy out,” Krebs said.
“Back in the 1830s, it may have made sense for the country recorder to be elected because that’s where everybody’s wealth was — in land — and we were still dividing up the land,” he said.
In 2007, Indiana assembled a bipartisan commission that suggested adopting a strong single-person county executive who would appoint almost everyone. The plan recommended transferring all township responsibilities to the county, reducing the number of school districts and consolidating county and city health departments. The tagline for the report was “We’ve got to stop governing like this.”
It was a bold proposal, but it has proved to be a failed one. A few of the commission’s recommendations were adopted, but the big-picture, politically controversial changes languished in the legislature, according to coverage in the Indianapolis Star.
People are inherently skeptical about changing longstanding government structures, Brooks said. For instance, people are perfectly fine with mayors appointing police chiefs, but not with county commissioners appointing sheriffs, he said.
“Whether it be counties in Ohio or cities, usually, when it comes to deciding on the ballot, the arguments about efficiency and qualifications are rarely successful unless they are hinged to a scandal of some sort,” Brooks said. “You’ve got to have a better reason than cost efficiency or reform.”
In Ohio’s two instances of county charter government, voters were spurred to change by corruption.
Summit County’s woes were punctuated by an ABC News report (by Geraldo Rivera) that linked its county probate judge to a prostitution ring in 1980. Seven county officials were kicked out of office, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. More recently, federal raids in the summer of 2008 started the unraveling of a corrupt county government, led by a commissioner and the auditor, in Cuyahoga County.
Stevenot said trimming elections would make it easier to field more qualified candidates. A shorter slate of candidates could be better for voters, too, as people could examine each individual policymaker’s platform more closely, he said. However, it makes him a little nervous at the same time.
“You want to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You don’t want to lose control,” he said. “Our government has gotten so far removed from the people. The U.S. has more elections that any other country in the world, and maybe that causes some complacency, but I’d hate to lose it and never get it back.”
Peggy Goldberg · Top Commenter · Ships Captain at Maersk Line Shipping CompanyNotonly get rid of half of these fat cats, but cut down the salaries to half of what they rake in, that we, we get people who will want to work for the people and not the fat cats who are there for the big bucks, and then want to climb the ladder to higher fat cat jobs. Make these positions part time.
Ron Dillon · Top Commenter · University of Parris IslandRight on Peggy. Then you can start to reduce all the federal jobs and elected officials that only sit on their fat butt with their hand out! Too many duplicate and triplicate jobs being performed, or should I say supposed to be performed. Our local, state & federal governments have grown way out of bounds! Yes here in RedNeckVille Georgia too!
Dale Rhoads · Top Commenter · Fort Worth, TexasGo from corruption to cronyism. When the mayor appoints the Police Chief, too many times the chief is just the puppet of the mayor. Keep the sheriff answerable to the voters! Maybe the Police Chief should be elected also.My question(s) would be – When an elected official runs un-opposed, why are they on the ballot if you have NO CHOICE? There’s a few here that run un-opposed EVERY ELECTION, and I’ll be damned if I wanna see there names without having a choice to replace them! Let me also add – If they are un-opposed, why does the media not point this out? – surely there’s somebody out there who would want these jobs, they come with professional courtesy and immunity!I can name 3 elected officials who run unopposed who are costing us MILLIONS in wasted court time, and then there’s the lawsuits which are a waste because of their granted immunity! IF people only knew how much they waste and how much they pervert your rights with their justice system they would flip!
I am talking about the 10 commandments judge who slaps his friends on the wrist when they break one of Gods commandments while throwing the book at others – We have a pill popping Judge who does the same for his drug using buddies, and then there’s the Prosecutor and staff who condone it!
So YES – It’s time we cut the fat, and make no election UN-opposed – “the people” NEED A CHOICE!!!!!!