City Council Fails at Oversight

March 06, 1995

The City Council shares a grave responsibility for Baltimore's vacant housing crisis.

Problems in the vacant housing program were documented for years before irregularities surfaced in the crash program to repair them. Yet the council failed to exercise oversight.

Neither council members nor President Mary Pat Clarke can escape blame. They allowed the council's committee system to become largely a joke. Top bureaucrats' frequent failure or outright refusal to testify before committees confirms this.

The worst part is that after encountering such recalcitrance, many committee leaders just gave up. Thus Councilwoman Vera Hall, D-5th, lamely explained her housing committee's inaction on vacant houses by contending "we don't have oversight over the Housing Authority of Baltimore City because it is considered a federal/city agency." When the council last week attempted to bypass her, she inexplicably changed her mind and claimed jurisdiction for a hearing tomorrow.

The city's housing mess has several major causes, aside from the generally abysmal state of public housing nationwide. They include:

* Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's failure to correct deficiencies early on by forcing his previous housing commissioner to take action. This led to staff demoralization. As competent middle managers quit in frustration, less dedicated ones were promoted, opening the door to corruption.

* Mind-boggling red tape and conflicting rules at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. This turned most repair efforts into a time-consuming bureaucratic football, which was further complicated by ever-changing regulations that often were applied retroactively.

* Poorly selected and irresponsible tenants who ransacked units without fear of penalty or moved out abruptly without securing the premises.

An aggressive council housing committee would have sought to redress these problems early on.

A working City Council committee structure is an essential part of the checks and balances of Baltimore's governance. It is an early-warning system that can deal with problems and irregularities before they get out of hand. It must be revived.

This can be done. Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, battled the school administration so long he finally won cooperation for his education committee. It is now playing an important role in examining the city's experience with contracting out public schools to a profit-making company.

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