As age of hero fades, citizens must speak


May 05, 1991|By Neal Peirce and Curtis W. Johnson

For far too long, the people of Baltimore City and the neighboring counties have looked to mayors and county executives to set the pace for change.

If relying solely on elected leaders was ever a good idea, it's dangerously wrong today.

Few people believe that Baltimore's Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will ever lead the city with the aggressiveness that William Donald Schaefer exemplified.

In the counties, hero leadership has faded too. Last fall's elections swept in new executives who ran more as protest candidates than torchbearers of a new vision -- such figures as Charles L. Ecker in Howard County and Roger B. Hayden in Baltimore County. Their energies have been quickly absorbed by the struggle to balance budgets in a difficult recession year.

Will any politician around the Baltimore region soon rise above stamping out brush fires? Is another Mayor Schaefer or Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin about to appear? Are the counties likely to see leaders who match the energy shown by Theodore Venetoulis and Dennis Rasmussen in Baltimore County, Habern

Freeman in Harford, James Lighthizer in Anne Arundel?

Probably not. Not just here, but all across America, there are few communities where people gladly let anyone -- government leaders, political organizations, business heavies -- make decisions for everyone else. We seem to be moving into an era of what some call "the democratization of power."

We're likely to see more partnerships in place of government dictation, consensus-building rather than order-giving, collaborative rather than heavy-handed leadership.

The regions that succeed in the '90s will be those with leaders who have learned to share power and to look for a diversity of talent: women as well as men, minorities as well as whites, county as well as city people.

If Baltimore area residents need any proof that politicians are failing to provide real leadership, they don't have to look far. No challenge facing the Baltimore region today is greater than growth management and protecting Maryland's most splendid asset -- the Chesapeake Bay.

The Maryland General Assembly flinched at the prospect of passing landmark growth management legislation, which resulted from a 1988 report on the bay's declining health and recommendations of a gubernatorial task force. The proposal has been put off for summer study.

Yet polls on growth management have shown Marylanders -- in the city, the counties, across the state -- leagues ahead of the politicians. They want action. And there's nothing especially radical about the proposed law. It simply places mild restraints on sprawling development to save the heavy consumption of "raw" land that magnifies the silt-laden runoff and pollution of the bay.

The state wouldn't dictate precise land use: It would simply require counties and cities to develop their own plans to minimize sprawl, focus development in established towns and cities, and protect the natural environment.

Similar statutes in Oregon, Vermont, Georgia, New Jersey and Florida haven't crippled development or caused anyone inordinate harm. Michael D. Barnes, the former congressman who chaired the bay task force, says moderate growth management could save 400,000 acres from development in Maryland. The state's rural scenery and quality of life would be protected. The program could save local governments millions of dollars they'd have to spend on new roads and sewers for new shopping strips and subdivisions.

As in other states, the proposal is opposed by county officials leery of any curbs on their powers. The parochial politicians are joined by farmers, developers and land speculators who believe controls would impair their potential to sell off their lands for big profits.

Yet if there were ever an issue on which the people of the Baltimore region need to educate themselves and then fight in unison for state action, this is it. Growth management legislation might not produce miracles. But it would contribute to a revived bay, one of Maryland's greatest assets and strongest economic tools.

And if rapid-fire growth were slowed at the urban periphery and encouraged in the center, Baltimore City would be better able to attract new residents -- a win-win scenario for the counties and city alike.

A few years ago, Governor Schaefer's embrace might have been able to force a growth management plan through the legislature. No longer. He doesn't command that kind of power now. The politicians are defaulting. People power is needed to force action.

What's the way to create broad and powerful constituencies for change, alliances that neither government nor entrenched special interests can overlook?

One answer, but just a partial one, is through enlightened business leadership. It can be an immense assist -- in demanding, for example, regional economic planning, in pushing for stem-to-stern school renewal, in supporting community development corporations.

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