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Q&A: Cuyahoga County Executive-elect Chris Ronayne aims to make 'Healthy Cuyahoga' slogan a reality

Chris Ronayne looks at a document with a male staffer
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Chris Ronayne looks at polling data on the night of the election for Cuyahoga County Executive.

Cuyahoga County will have a new county executive next week. Chris Ronayne will be sworn in Sunday as the county’s third executive since the new form of government was created in 2009.

Ideastream Public Media’s Matt Richmond sat down with Ronayne recently and asked about his plans in office, starting with his first goals on taking office.

CHRIS RONAYNE: We will have a culture of high performance and our high performance will start with where it all began in the beginning - the charter. Efficient, effective government.

I pledged an ombudsman office at the county that would address everyday needs. When you make a call to the county, again these are your public servants, you get a call back and you get direction on where you need to go.

We're going to stick to what we ran on and that is a healthy communities; healthy economy; healthy government approach.

On the healthy communities, I'm certainly going to spend a lot of time with the mayors and managers of the 59 communities of Cuyahoga County to understand what they need to deliver in their communities and where there are gaps.

On the healthy economy, I'm going to be investing resources in the workforce development partners that can help people upskill and retool to be productive in this economy.

We heard about housing, housing shortages, lack of affordable housing, a lack of middle market housing that was keeping people from remaining in their communities and so we're going to be working a lot on that.

I pledged to have a dedicated staff team specifically to housing, having a department of housing that's focused on public sector partnerships in the housing markets.

As the economy shifts, as a lot of consolidations from places where people's doctors are to where they shop for food, they need to get there. And there's a significant percentage of Cuyahoga County residents who don't have a way to get there.

We're not here to supplant the regional transit authority, we're here to complement the RTA. And what I mean by that is help with those next miles off the main transit lines that get people to and from where they live and where they need to go.

RICHMOND: On the topic of trust in government and making sure that county government is efficient and effective, one of the issues that came up and it came up with the sheriff and his role overseeing the jail a few years back, the idea there might be some flaws with the new charter. And now that you have taken up residence inside of the county building, do you think there are changes to the charter that need to be made?

RONAYNE: As far as the jail itself goes, one of the things I'm dedicated to is making sure we've got humane conditions. Whatever we do, we won't be vacating the existing facility for at least a couple of years.

And so, for that we need to make sure that facility is a 2023 facility, not something that's dated back in the 1980s or 1990s.

We definitely heard from people, first and foremost, that they want a justice system that works well and that's not just a jail, that's a justice system that works well.

We're going to be working a lot with our local municipalities and their law enforcement agencies to make sure that our incident response management is done well. There are some neat pilots going on, like in the city of Shaker Heights, where there are, where needed, a mental health specialist that's accompanying an officer on an incident.

I think the overall question that you mentioned about the charter and the sheriff, I mean, I want to vet this with the people of Cuyahoga County, over time. There's been some members of county council who have expressed an interest in exploring a separately elected sheriff. We're not here to stand in opposition out of the gates on that.

What we are here is to vet the question with the public. The public voted for a specific charter in 2009, so let's explore that charter in full, including the sheriff's responsibilities and management report, and let's look at what the best option is.

I'm a big fan of looking around at best practices in other markets. I think we look down to Columbus, at the systems of justice that may be working better, particularly as it relates to the jail that they've recently endeavored in. I think we look to places like San Antonio to look at how they're addressing the unhoused population. Looking to other markets about where things are working. Looking to Pittsburgh to say, 'Hey, they've made an economy, a really smart economy, and they've got an economic engine that's really working by all accounts.'

RICHMOND: You mentioned that the immediate focus has to make the jail a more humane place. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on how that happens and how, with people who are clearly not well entering the jail, going to a cell and then dying in that cell, what the county has to do to address that issue?

RONAYNE: I think that upstream response is where it all begins and then making sure that officers with persons in their care, in their custody, in their detention have the appropriate tools in their toolbox to make sure that they know that there are diversion opportunities if appropriate, to make that call and then to be ready to bring a person to the appropriate place.

Same with booking downtown. Are we actually equipped with the resources to know where a person should be going pretrial?

The jail itself needs to be prepared to assess a person's status - the physical wellbeing, their mental wellbeing - and they need to be able to get the appropriate care to the individual in our care at the moment of intake.

RICHMOND: The average daily population at the jail has dropped from 1600-something to somewhere in the 1500s and I'm wondering if you've noticed that, if you've seen any changes already in what's happening at the jail since you were elected?

RONAYNE: I think that there are a multitude of sources people are drawing on that can give a multitude of answers as to how many persons are in any given night in the jail.

I think that we need to work together to coordinate our information source to get an accurate depiction on a nightly basis.

What I would like to do, as we contemplate future facilities, is contemplate a future where our population in the central jail is less and the individual's night stay on an aggregate average is less and that we are moving expeditiously toward justice.

Cleveland/Cuyahoga County can do better working together on making sure that we are expeditiously addressing justice. And I think we will. I think there's an esprit de corps that I've learned from talking to leadership on the judges' side, that I've learned talking to leadership on the sheriff and law enforcement side and on the executive side, working with the mayors on upstream alternatives, making sure that people are on healthier paths in their lives.

My focus is upstream justice, upstream intervention and when there's an interface at the jail, there's a deployment of what's needed to those that are in our custody, to get them what they need, either mental health assistance, addiction assistance and the appropriate stay with an expeditious path for them to get on to the next step.

Because right now things are getting clogged and they have been and I think that's why we've seen doubling up in the cells and we've just got to make sure that we're all working from a common playbook.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.