James O’Reilly is no slouch.
A volunteer law professor at the University of Cincinnati, O’Reilly has taught there for 30 years. He’s also written dozens of textbooks and more than 100 articles on numerous aspects of regulation and liability.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court quoted one of his writings on food and drug law in a March 2000 ruling.
For good measure, he's treasurer of the Cincinnati Law Library Association and vice mayor of the city of Wyoming, just north of Cincinnati.
With that type of expertise, it’s not surprising that Hamilton County commissioners chose O’Reilly to co-chair a 15-person task force that is examining methods for improving the efficiency of county government. But even a mind as sharp and quick-witted as O’Reilly’s can be challenged when facing off against entrenched politicians and bureaucrats trying to protect their turf.
For a task force meeting last week, O’Reilly previously had sent a list of questions to the head of several county offices so he could understand their internal processes and get their input on various matters. (Unlike city government, commissioners don’t control all aspects of county government. Many offices — like auditor, clerk of courts and prosecutor — are independently elected, although commissioners must scrutinize their budgets.)
Out of O’Reilly’s 21 questions, a few hit on hot-button issues like political patronage and cronyism. They included asking about policies for hiring relatives, soliciting campaign contributions from employees and whether the offices provide “comp” time for employees who engage in campaign activities for the office-holder on weekends.
The questions aren’t merely hypothetical: Many positions throughout the 4,800-member county workforce are filled using political party connections, particularly at the courthouse.
Recipients are expected to donate cash, make signs, walk in parades and do other activities for their bosses.
For example, when the position of the county’s assistant chief probation officer was vacant in late 2008, a long-serving probation office supervisor who wanted the job sent a letter to the judges — mostly Republican — who would make the decision reminding them of all the campaign work she had done.
The woman felt compelled to send the letter because the frontrunner for the job was the daughter of Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis Jr., even though some people said she wasn’t as qualified.
Hamilton County government’s workforce is divided into two categories: Non-classified (managerial) and classified (rankand-file) employees. The county has adopted Ohio ethics laws pertaining to what political activities classified employees can and can’t do. They’re prohibited from asking for donations or distributing materials for candidates or selling tickets for political party events, for instance. Although county commissioners also have prohibited their non-classified employees from being involved in political activities, most of the independently elected offices don’t because their workers often provide the bread and butter for their campaigns.
With Hamilton County facing a $13.8 million deficit this year in the account that pays for stadium construction debt, an amount that will increase to $25 million in coming years, commissioners are looking for savings anywhere they can find it.
In the past two years, commissioners have cut spending by about $60 million, or 22 percent — roughly back to 1998 levels. That’s still not enough.
Let’s get back to last week’s meeting: Leis and County Auditor Dusty Rhodes took umbrage at O’Reilly’s questions and refused to answer them. Instead, the cranky duo spoke in generalities. County Prosecutor Joe Deters disliked the questions so much he didn’t even attend.
Observers are left to wonder what these officials are so worried about. O’Reilly’s inquiries seem perfectly reasonable and are the type essential to streamlining government.
O’Reilly said he expected some resistance. “Reform is not easy, and some find it discomforting to be asked about productivity and efficiency,” he said.
But O’Reilly isn’t giving up. “We will have to dig deeper and use both the county central staff’s information and a series of Public Records Act requests to get the answers,” he said.
Noting that personnel costs are the largest portion of the county budget on a percentage basis, O’Reilly said patronage is an issue that must be dealt with.
“Individual county workers generally do a fine job with what they are tasked to do ... but in my opinion, the selection process is broken, the retention and promotion process is broken, the rewards system is broken,” O’Reilly said. “The patronage system may have been a great way to hire in 1851 when Ohio constitutional patterns were set; it may have been OK in 1951; it will not be acceptable to taxpayers by 2021 because the public will not continue to pay for the waste inside the current patronage process. (Reform activist) Murray Seasongood changed the city system of civil service (in the 1920s), but the county was not changed.”
Hamilton County is mostly conservative, and conservatives supposedly like limited government and cutting waste. If that’s truly the case, residents should rally around O’Reilly’s efforts.
No matter the circumstances, it’s always especially sad when any young person dies. Whether by accident, crime, disease or some other cause, the death reeks of wasted potential with the victim never knowing the joys of creating a family or finding a fulfilling career.
News reports about last week’s death of St. Xavier High School senior and football star Matt James have begun focusing on his allegedly inebriated condition before he fell off a balcony to his death in Panama City, Fla. That’s fine, as it’s the media’s job to convey information about noteworthy events.
But media outlets should treat all victims equally and not give special preference to certain people just because of where they lived or who their friends were.
In articles and blog items about James’ death, The Cincinnati Enquirer stopped allowing reader comments after some people left rude or distasteful postings. That’s certainly the newspaper’s call to make, but what about all the similarly hateful comments made in response to articles about the latest victims of shooting violence in Over-the-Rhine or Avondale?
Inevitably, commenters leave nasty and thinly veiled racist remarks that blame the victim for being out late at night or hanging out in a high-crime area. The Enquirer never stops all commenting in such instances, although it will remove specific comments if readers complain.
This isn’t an isolated incident. The Enquirer also blocked comments on articles about the death of Kerri Shryock in December 2008, when she fell to her death after a harness failed during play rehearsals at Crossroads Community Church in Oakley. The newspaper reportedly stopped comments after some church members who worked at companies like Procter & Gamble complained. View the latest article about shootings, however, and be prepared to wade through some vile comments.
When making such decisions in the future, editors should remember that victims in poor neighborhoods often leave behind bereaved family and friends, too.