City's dire straits prompt old Schmoke backers to call for 'do it now' mayor

August 03, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

When a stray bullet killed 3-year-old Andre Dorsey on his front stoop last month, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke termed the incident a tragedy for both the victim and the 15-year-old charged with the crime.

Rather than offer any dramatic speeches or declarations, the mayor pointed out that Baltimore's rising tide of violence is part of a national trend. It was a response that George N. Buntin, for one, did not want to hear.

"The mayor was depicted as kind of shrugging his shoulders saying it's a sign of the times," said Mr. Buntin, executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "People started calling this office outraged. . . . It's not right for the mayor to have this attitude that there is nothing we can do."

Mr. Buntin says the city needs more passionate leadership from Mr. Schmoke because of its dire predicament.

Stray bullets are finding innocent victims with frightening regularity. Homicides are occurring at a record pace. Arrest rates and incarceration rates are on the rise. The number of vacant houses is increasing. The public schools are showing few signs of improvement.

The mounting problems are prompting frustrated critics to blame Mr. Schmoke for not conveying a sense of urgency about solving them.

"The administration has been somewhat lax," Mr. Buntin said. "I don't think they have been as dynamic in terms of their actual movement. The governor has this do-it-now mentality. We don't seem to have that in the city. And that's what we need."

The perceived lack of action from City Hall has brought the mayor harsh public criticism from groups once firmly in his camp: the NAACP and Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, a church-based community group whose social action agenda has been championed by Mr. Schmoke.

BUILD took the mayor to task before more than 450 of its members at a recent meeting. The group said it wants him to move faster on a number of initiatives he supports, including community policing and transferring more control from the education department's central administration to individual schools.

"Basically our frustration stems from being involved in committees set up by the administration that had ways of being caught in non-action," said the Rev. Robert R. Behnke, a BUILD co-chairman.

At the meeting, Mr. Schmoke distanced himself from the organization, saying he would not mind if the group assumed the role of "loyal opposition."

"Part of what people heard him saying is 'I don't need you anymore,' " said Kathleen O'Toole, a BUILD organizer.

Mr. Schmoke angrily rejects the notion that he is turning his back on constituents or failing to provide the leadership needed to marshal the civic concern necessary to combat Baltimore's problems.

Some groups "may feel frustrated, but the fact is that we are moving ahead on a number of issues of concern," Mr. Schmoke said. "But sometimes they don't agree on how we are moving."

The mayor said much of the problem is that the city has no money with which to launch expensive initiatives. Most recently, state budget cuts jeopardized city plans to hire enough officers to bring the police force up to full strength.

"We have been hurt by national trends and the federal government's virtual abandonment of cities," the mayor said. "I am trying to emphasize the partnership theme with groups more and more. . . . We simply don't have the money to support the kind of service infrastructure we used to."

Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, agreed that the city's financial problems leave Mr. Schmoke in a straitjacket when it comes to most issues, including beefing up the police xTC force to fight violence.

"There are a couple of realities here," Mr. Cunningham said. "The biggest one is funding and a loss of state money."

The mayor's critics acknowledge the city's budget woes. But they say Mr. Schmoke should be a more insistent leader. "Some of this has to do with aggressively operating within the limits that we have," Mr. Behnke said.

Similar thinking prompted the NAACP anti-crime summit, a chaotic town meeting held last week in a church in a violence-torn East Baltimore neighborhood. The NAACP drew publicity for the meeting by issuing a call for martial law.

"We wanted to spur this administration to get into a crisis mode," Mr. Buntin said. "They have to start acting as though they are in a crisis. But many of the mayor's actions indicate business as usual. We need to be creative, and we need to start pushing to get things done."

That kind of criticism is only part of Mr. Schmoke's dilemma.

When he moves quickly, the mayor still encounters opposition. Groups including the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and BUILD said that they should have been fully consulted before he agreed to turn over management of nine public schools to a private firm.

BUILD also felt blindsided by Mr. Schmoke's decision to join a planned lawsuit to force more state aid for Baltimore's underfunded school system.

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