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The cloud over County Executive Armond Budish: editorial

September 9, 2018

The cloud over County Executive Armond Budish: editorial

Throughout Armond Budish’s political career, and particularly in his nearly four years as county executive, we have considered him to be an upright man who is trying to do the right thing.

But an upright man trying to do the right thing wouldn’t be working as hard as Budish seems to be doing to hide his actions from public scrutiny. He is in real danger of squandering the good will and reputation for honesty that he has spent a career building. 

Budish’s actions also are entirely antithetical to the trust he accepted in taking the reins of county government less than a decade after key county officials, two judges, a half dozen lawyers and a large number of other public employees, as well as numerous business owners and others seeking favors and contracts, were convicted and many went to prison for violating that trust.

Restoring integrity is therefore critical in Cuyahoga County, where shameful levels of cronyism, insider political deals and other types of favoritism so recently characterized county government. It’s why voters completely rewrote the terms of county governance and demanded more sunshine and accountability in how the county does business.

Budish’s secrecy shreds that trust. His missteps and misjudgments are mounting amid troubling signs that his lack of transparency, misplaced loyalties and irresolution on some matters, added to a lack of accountability and inadequate oversight of some county operations, are making a range of pressing problems worse -- and costing county taxpayers.

The latest sign: Budish’s call in late August, in concert with members of Cuyahoga County Council’s audit committee, to spend taxpayer dollars needlessly to hire a lawyer to advise the county on how to keep future draft audit reports secret from the public, circumventing state requirements.

He did this after a highly critical draft audit revealed grossly deficient county oversight of the county’s IT department, the apparent focus of a widening criminal investigation. The audit uncovered poorly vetted county deals, a costly lack of oversight and the possibility that favoritism was shown to certain firms. 

Why would the Budish administration work so hard to keep its secrets?

One answer is the gathering storm of that criminal probe, which caused the county to put on unpaid leave one of Budish’s key hires, Scot Rourke, the chief information officer. 

The Budish administration’s intensifying efforts to draw the shroud of secrecy around its operations seem specifically intended to deflect attention from what future aggressive audits and release of other public documents may uncover about other sweet deals, other deficient oversight, other misleading public statements, other possibly misspent county funds.

Rourke was one of a number of top-paid administrators Budish brought onboard early in his tenure -- apparently using, unbeknownst to the public, various enticements, at least for some, that included relocation allowances, bonuses, extra vacation and special executive pay that were not sanctioned by the county’s employee handbook.

It’s not clear who received which perks, what the total cost was to the county, and whether -- given that they weren’t permitted by the employee manual -- they are recoverable from those executives.

The public didn’t know these special deals were being struck until an internal county audit uncovered them along with $1.7 million in improperly paid overtime to salaried employees. 

In the case of his now-departed chief of staff, Sharon Sobol Jordan, Budish admitted to cleveland.com that he agreed to allow Jordan to get her executive MBA while she was employed by the county, as a way to induce her to take the county job (and its pay cut).

But he didn’t reveal how far the favors extended.

In a letter of recommendation Budish wrote on Jordan’s behalf that was obtained by cleveland.com, he said that she could treat “time spent at all regular activities of the [eMBA] program as regular work time,” that the county would pay for her travel to Columbus for classes and for her hotel costs while there. 

Jordan’s sweet deal also has drawn the attention of county prosecutors.

And this is just what we know so far.

“Progress” is only so good as its results. Poorly conceived, poorly run, poorly overseen and overly secret projects, no matter how innovative or needed, will result in misspent and wasted dollars. Sunshine saves money.

And there’s a corollary to the above: A fortress mentality in an administration increasingly focused on bottling up bad news means less energy for creating good news, or solving pressing problems that require tough decisions.

Just as one example, bail reform is a top county priority -- but without money to make it happen, it’s stuck in the frustrating phase of good intentions. Budish has supported the concept but hasn’t yet committed new county money to the process.

And the county faces an even bigger financial dilemma: What to do about the Justice Center, whose physical condition is seriously deteriorating. The court’s 34 general-division judges appear virtually unanimous that they don’t want to relocate while the county would clearly like to consider opening the land to lucrative private development. But neither alternative seems plausible when the money and/or ability to borrow is uncertain. A solution and a plan are needed. Ignoring the problem or kicking it down the road is not the answer.

Armond Budish is wrapping up his first term as Cuyahoga County executive, seemingly with smooth sailing to his second. He had no Democratic primary opponent in May; Republican challenger Peter J. Corrigan missed the filing deadline and got on the November ballot only after rounding up at least 50 votes as a primary write-in.

But it will not be smooth sailing in Budish’s second term if he fails to change course toward more openness and accountability in managing county affairs.

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.  

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