ELYRIA — Backers of a controversial plan to reform Lorain County government insisted Monday that their proposal isn’t designed to deliver control of the county to Republicans, an allegation leveled last month by Democrats.
“We never sat there and said let’s guarantee we have two Republican districts, let’s make sure we have three Republican districts,” Jeff Riddell, one of the Republicans backing reform, said during an interview with The Chronicle-Telegram.
Paul Adams, chairman of the Lorain Democratic Party and director of the Lorain County Board of Elections, has said his review of the proposed seven-member county council showed that while three of the districts would be Democratic strongholds, three others would break Republican and a fourth would lean Republican.
But Mark Salling, a Cleveland State University urban affairs professor who created the districts under a contract the reformers had with the Center for Community Solutions in Cleveland, said he designed the districts to be competitive and four would lean Democratic.
For instance, he said one of the district that Adams insists will go Republican — comprised of Avon Lake, Sheffield, Sheffield Lake and a small portion of Lorain — actually skews Democratic based on his analysis of voting trends in recent county commissioner, legislative and other elections.
His analysis shows that Democrats tend to win 61.2 percent of the vote in that district compared to Republicans’ 38.8 percent.
The only district created by the plan where Salling’s numbers show Republican voting percentages outpacing Democrats is in a district comprised of Avon and the northern part of North Ridgeville. In that district, Salling said, Republican take 51.3 percent of the vote compared to 48.7 percent for Democrats.
Adams has said the Avon-North Ridgeville district would be reliably Republican.
Brian Hoagland, one of the Democrats involved in the project, said that all of the districts had to have populations that were within 5 percent of each other, which meant both Lorain and Elyria, traditional Democratic strongholds, had to be split up, another complaint of Democrats.
“We did not have a discussion about how we could skew it in any way, shape or form other than a majority minority (district),” Hoagland said.
Hoagland and other reform supporters said they were following the law when they created a district comprised of much of Lorain that has a high population of blacks and Hispanics and is likely to elect a minority county council member.
Another concern of Democrats is how the districts will be split up for voting purposes. Under the original plan, three of the four districts would be voted on in presidential election years when Democratic voting turnout is at its highest.
Riddell had insisted in an April 25 email to Salling that two of the Democratic districts, which comprise the bulk of the Lorain and Elyria, had to be even-numbered. That would have put them up for election in a presidential year.
Riddell said Monday that he wanted those seats to be elected in presidential years so that it would ensure high voter turnout for the minority district in Lorain.
But after reform backers pushed their plan from the November ballot to next year, the even-numbered districts, including the Lorain minority district, were pushed to gubernatorial election years, when voter turnout, particularly among Democrats, drops off.
Riddell said he couldn’t explain why the minority district he felt needed to be in a presidential year was now being elected in a gubernatorial year.
Democrats have also been highly critical of the secrecy they contend surrounded the creation of the reform plan, which would see the current elected offices of treasurer, coroner, recorder, engineer and clerk of courts become appointed positions. The auditor, sheriff and prosecutor would remain independent elected officials.
The reformers, however, insist that they were trying to keep the number of people involved small and confidential so they would get a plan drawn up without those involved facing retaliation from those opposed to reform.
Riddell said the group lost several of those originally involved because of disagreements about the plan. For instance, he said, several people from the townships pulled out because the majority didn’t want to make county government nonpartisan.
He also said that too many people would have made the process of crafting a new county government with representative districts too unwieldy.
“You can’t have a committee of 100,” he said.
Now that the group is gathering signatures to put their proposed reforms before voters in November 2014, they’re starting the initial work of convincing people it’s a good idea. That will turn into a fundraising campaign down the road.
But the effort isn’t without funds. Riddell said he made a personal loan in order to cover the $10,000 cost of bringing in the Center for Community Solutions to draw the districts.
The Center for Community Solutions was hired through the Lorain County Community College Public Services Institute, although the college served only as a conduit for the money and didn’t actually keep any.
The college also didn’t have a fully signed contract for the work until mid June, although the work began in March. Tracy Green, LCCC’s vice president for strategic and institutional development, said while there was a lapse in getting the paperwork completed, the college discovered the discrepancy and took measures to correct it.