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Government & Politics

What Is a County Executive, and Why Do Only Two Ohio Counties Have One?

photo of Ilene Shapiro, Bill Roemer, Bruce Winges

Only two of Ohio’s 88 counties have a county executive, and both are in Northeast Ohio. This November, voters in one of those counties will be choosing their next county leader.

WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on why this form of government took root here; it’s a story that starts with a sex scandal and ends with public corruption.

In Summit County, Democrat Ilene Shapiro and Republican Bill Roemer are running for county executive. They’re running to manage the county’s half-billion-dollar budget and departments ranging from Economic Development to Job & Family Services.

Summit has had an executive since 1981, after voters approved what’s known as the charter form of government.

“Most everyone else has the commissioner form of government," explains Stephen Brooks, a political scientist at the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute.

“It’s usually three individuals who are elected and in some senses serve both the legislative and the executive activities of county government.”

That’s in every Ohio county except Summit and Cuyahoga. In those other 86 counties, posts like treasurer and recorder are elected along with three commissioners. Though the two counties with charters differ from each other in which positions are elected and which are appointed, charter proponents maintain, overall, they're less chaotic and more accountable to the public with a single person – an executive – in-charge instead of a panel of commissioners.

“Part of their argument goes that you can be elected coroner without being a medical officer. So if you have these jobs that have ways in which you have qualifications -- and someone who can hire and fire them – it becomes much more efficient.” (Ohio law does now require that elected coroners be physicians.)

So why haven’t more Ohio counties switched? Brooks says it boils down to voters needing a major catalyst for change.

“The two cases of charter government both came out of a scandal in dounty government.”

A national stage
The first case, in Summit County, occurred in the 1970s. Mark Williamson -- now spokesman for the Akron Public Schools -- was a reporter at WAKR at the time and covered it first-hand.

“We had an auditor who had some issues. We had a coroner who had some issues: there was an accusation that he was taking fillings out of people’s teeth and selling them. And then we had a judge [who] was accused of exchanging lenient sentences for sexual favors.”

Williamson remembers things came to a head when Geraldo Rivera came to town to file a story on the judge.

“We were an ABC-TV station, so we worked with them on production of this story. When he ran the story, it was so theatrical, I think it helped fuel the talk that we need to change the way we run our government.”

In Cuyahoga County
Thirty years later, Cuyahoga County voters had to make the same choice, following an investigation into corruption in the county commissioners’ office – an investigation that ultimately led to more than 60 convictions. The current set-up of the office in Cuyahoga is slightly different than in Summit. For example, both offices appoint medical examiners. The sheriff, however, is elected in Summit and appointed in Cuyahoga.

Those differences aside, the focus in both cases is managing the direction of the entire county – not just one city. Stephen Brooks from the Bliss Institute says the economic impact of the office is debatable. The real value in Summit County has been the ability to get things done.

“The example of the mayor of Akron and the county executive working together to save the Firestone Research Center [or] to keep Goodyear here, [those were] done with very laser-focus. As we  all know, who work on committees, having that kind of laser-focus and the ability to really bring the right people together in the right room with three people in-charge -- instead of one person in-charge -- is much more difficult.”

As to whether other counties in Ohio could move towards a charter form of government any time soon, it’s difficult to say. Brooks says counties need not only a major scandal, but also government reform advocates who are ready to push their cause forward.