Confused Schmoke Signals

January 18, 1992

These are tough times for all elected officials, but they seem to be particularly challenging for Baltimore City Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The city is broke. Its political clout in Annapolis is waning. Yet the needs of Baltimore's disproportionately poor population only keep growing. He must be wondering: If the beginning of my second term is like this, what will the end be like?

Mr. Schmoke's recent political flip-flops have not made the situation any easier. His pattern of taking a position and then backing down when the flak begins to get heavy is becoming increasingly troubling. He did that repeatedly during his first term with School Superintendent Richard Hunter before finally firing him. In recent weeks, he has done so in decisions concerning firefighters as well library and school closings. These are areas full of symbolism. From the day he became mayor, Mr. Schmoke has talked about improving schools, for example. And he pledged to make Baltimore "The City That Reads."

Mr. Schmoke has never struck us as a particularly impulsive man. But his behavior has created an image of a chief executive who follows no firmly set course. This may not be his fault alone. Perhaps the advice he receives is bad and fails to take potential fallout into consideration. But in the end, the buck stops with the mayor. He should make well-informed decisions and stick with them.

The mayor is preparing a new budget which is said to contain several measures that would consolidate and downsize the municipal bureaucracy, steps that are long overdue. But if such trimming is not done with firmness -- along with a good dose of psychological and political sensitivity -- the whole exercise may backfire.

If the Schmoke administration is to succeed during the next four years, it will need a radical restructuring of bureaucracy as well as attitudes. The city is no different from a major company undergoing a transformation. As stockholders, its taxpayers need to have a clear sense of direction and assurances that things are being well managed.

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