What is the proper role of the Baltimore City Council?
Should it remain a back-scratching debating society passing endless resolutions about birthdays, graduations, class reunions and world crises thousands of miles away?
Should it preoccupy itself with filling potholes, repairing sidewalks, eradicating rats and impounding cats and wayward dogs?
Should it duplicate the work of legions of city workers in delivering constituent services?
Absolutely not, to all of the above.
The City Council should forge a new role for itself: as a watchdog, spotting problems and proposing creative solutions, and as a diligent overseer and scrutinizer of the municipal government's performance, scope and size. At a time when Baltimore's tax base and its population continue to shrink, Baltimore City can no longer run its government the way it did at the time when 1 million residents lived here.
Through its committees, the City Council is supposed to exercise oversight responsibilities. In reality, those committees seldom assert themselves, even though budget powers give the council a mighty sword against intransigent bureaucracies.
A case in point is the education committee, chaired by Councilwoman Iris Reeves. During unprecedented crises and upheavals in the school system, that panel has consistently failed to perform. Why did it not investigate security problems and allegations of textbook shortages? Clearly that committee needs a new, more aggressive and responsible leader.
It is unfortunate that Mrs. Reeves and her two colleagues, Rochelle Rikki Spector and Vera Hall, face no real opposition in the Fifth Councilmanic District. Though we endorse them, we note two capable Democratic challengers. Isaiah Fletcher has done much good over the years, but his involvement in the messy affairs of the Park Heights Community Corp. casts a pall. Michael Johnson, a neighborhood activist, shows sincerity and promise but he is weakened by a disorganized campaign.
Even though there are few alternatives to the incumbents in the Fifth and the Fourth, where the existing lineup has our unenthusiastic approval, other districts offer new challengers who provide hope that the City Council can be transformed into a more responsible and meaningful body.
We are particularly impressed by a group of hard-working, independent candidates who, if elected, could serve as catalysts for change.
Five stand out:
* Dr. Peter Beilenson is a public health physician whose expertise ranges from AIDS and drugs to teen-age pregnancy. If elected from the Second District, he would be an important asset.
* Bea Gaddy, also from the Second, has unselfishly championed the homeless for years. Her perspective of what works and what doesn't would be as invaluable as her advocacy voice.
* Kevin O'Keeffe is a lawyer whose monograph on changing Baltimore politics was published by Georgetown University. Earnest and thoughtful, he is the kind of a coalition-builder the council needs.
* John Cain, a former editor of the East Baltimore Guide, would be a much-needed voice for historical preservation. This is of particular concern in the new First District now that it includes Federal Hill, Otterbein and Locust Point, in addition to Canton and Fells Point.
* Arlene Fisher has a social worker's understanding of challenges facing the Sixth District, an area with nearly every imaginable urban problem.
In the Democratic primary, The Sun endorses several other challengers over incumbents: First District -- Perry Sfikas; Third District -- Linda Janey and Martin O'Malley; Sixth District -- Melvin Stukes. Common to all of them is an apparent concern for issues such as housing and a feeling that city authorities are not doing their level best. If elected, they could form a nucleus demanding more action and instill a sense of urgency in the city administration.
On the Republican ballot, there are no contested races for councilmanic nominations.
Between now and Sept. 12 we will return to many of the districts, detailing reasons for our choices. We feel Baltimore City voters are ready for change. It is time for the City Council to play a more substantial role in municipal government.