ELYRIA — The Lorain County Democratic Party’s Executive Committee on Wednesday voted to oppose a proposed reform of county government whose backers are trying to get the issue on the November 2014 ballot.
The vote among Democrats present was unanimous, but one member of the committee, Elyria Democratic Party Chairman Mark Stewart, was notably absent. Stewart, who did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday, has been a strong proponent of reforming county government.
Lorain County Democratic Party Chairman Anthony Giardini said he had called the meeting so Stewart could explain his reasoning and had asked another prominent supporter of the plan, businessman Jeff Riddell, to attend and answer questions about how the plan was conceived. Giardini said he received a message that Riddell was out of town.
Giardini said after the meeting that as a member of the Executive Committee, Stewart will be obligated to support the party’s opposition to the reform effort and he intends to remind him of that.
When asked about the status of Stewart’s leadership position given his previous backing for the reform effort, Tom Callahan, vice chairman of the Elyria Democratic Party, said it likely will be reviewed by Elyria Democrats.
“At some point in the future there will be a discussion,” Callahan said.
Elyria City Councilman Jack Baird, R-at large, said that even with the political firestorm surrounding Stewart cashing in $18,080 worth of unused sick time after working four hours for the county in April, he hopes the former county auditor continues to support reform.
“I hope he does because I think he’s a strong voice of reason,” Baird, who didn’t attend Wednesday’s Democratic meeting, said.
Although supporters of the plan have called it a bipartisan effort to make county government more representative, Giardini and others argued it has enjoyed only limited support among Democrats, most notably Stewart and Avon Mayor Jim Smith.
Democrats contend the plan has largely been backed by Republicans who are using it as a vehicle to try to seize control of county government.
Although Lorain County voters tend to elect Democrats — only three Republicans now hold county-wide office — that would change, Giardini said, if the county shifts from having three at-large county commissioners to a seven-member county council.
Giardini and others said that the way the districts are drawn would see three come solidly under Republican control and a fourth would lean Republican. The remaining three districts would be strongly Democratic, he said.
Lorain Democratic Party Chairman Paul Adams, who is also the director of the county Board of Elections, said after the meeting that his review of recent county commissioner elections shows that the following districts would become Republican strongholds:
- A district comprised of Avon Lake, Sheffield, Sheffield Lake and part of Lorain;
- A district comprised of Avon and the northern part of North Ridgeville;
- A district comprised of the rest of North Ridgeville, a portion of Elyria that tends to vote Republican as well as Carlisle, Eaton and Columbia townships.
- The district that contains Grafton, LaGrange, Wellington, Kipton, Rochester, South Amherst, Oberlin and 11 townships would lean Republican, especially if the race for that district were held in a nonpresidential election year when students at famously liberal Oberlin College tend not to vote in great numbers, Adams said.
Baird said that the districts were created by the Center for Community Solutions, an organization affiliated with Cleveland State University, and weren’t designed to favor one party or the other.
“It was never part of any makeup of the council to be partisan in any way,” Baird said. “It was totally nonpartisan.”
He said the idea is to bring representation to parts of the county, like the southern townships and eastern suburbs that feel they have been underrepresented in county government. He said Democrats want to maintain their virtual lock on control of county government.
“If you’ve got all the power, why would you want to do anything different?” Baird said.
The plan also would see the county coroner, recorder, clerk of courts, engineer and treasurer change from being elected officials to positions appointed by the council. The county executive also would be appointed by the council, while the county prosecutor, sheriff and auditor would remain separate elected positions.
“The plan’s bad for county government because it places too much power in too few hands,” Giardini said.
Democrats said they also dislike the secrecy that cloaked that drafting of the proposed changes, which they argued saw too few voices discussing how to alter county government for everyone. It would have been better, they said, for the county to have created a charter commission to make recommendations for changing county government in public meetings.
Baird said the small nature of Citizens for Equal Representation had more to do with the logistics of getting a group of people to meet regularly than an effort to exclude the public.
In other business, Democrats agreed to back a replacement levy with an increase for Lorain County Community College and a temporary 0.5 percent sales tax hike with a rollback of some property taxes being sought by county commissioners. Both of those issues will be on the ballot in November.