Shake-Up at City Hall

February 23, 1993

After five years in office, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has begun the long-awaited -- and much overdue -- first major shake-up of his administration.

There had been some reshuffling previously: the replacement of a disappointing school superintendent, the merger of the transit and traffic bureaucracy into the Department of Public Works. But yesterday's reassignment of Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn to a vaguely defined post -- "assistant to the mayor for policy development" -- is a move that could have profound consequences within city government.

The removal of Mr. Hearn gives Mayor Schmoke the opportunity to separate the command structure of Baltimore's public housing agency from its other governmental and private housing efforts. Additionally, two political patronage boondoggles -- the Urban Services Agency and a network of mayor's stations -- are to be revamped. (The mayor said that he will announce details of these changes within two weeks).

As the housing czar for five years, Mr. Hearn occupied one of the most important jobs in city government. He meant well. But he was clearly overwhelmed and lost control.

As assistance for the city's housing programs was cut, Mr. Hearn's reduced staff spent a disproportionate amount of time dealing with West Baltimore's Nehemiah project -- a federally funded showcase of new housing. As a consequence, available community block grants from Washington earmarked for Baltimore's older neighborhoods were not spent, resulting in a dangerous increase of visible housing deterioration.

A similar confusion describes Baltimore's public housing efforts. The city argues that existing high-rise towers are unmanageable and should be replaced with low-rise and scattered site units. Yet many of those units are boarded-up and vandalized because of the Housing Authority's inability to manage them. The new housing chief faces a daunting task.

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