Back to basics at City Council

March 30, 1995

These are the days of rumors and strategy sessions in advance of Baltimore City's Sept. 12 primary. Political hopefuls are testing the waters and developing agendas for campaigns that include elections for mayor, City Council president, comptroller and 18 City Council seats. This is America and quite a number of citizens seem to feel they are qualified to serve, particularly in the council.

We call on all potential City Council candidates to suggest ways to make that legislative body's committee system more workable. In this respect, most of the incumbents have done a rotten job. As the council's long inaction on vacant housing problems shows, self-evident major problems have been allowed to fester in the city without adequate oversight by elected officials.

This lamentable situation must change. But that can happen only if men and women are elected to the council who make it their business to exercise their oversight functions with vigilance.

Much will depend on the next City Council president. It is the privilege of the No. 2 elected official to appoint chairpersons and members of each committee and see that they work. Mary Pat Clarke's record in that respect leaves much to be desired.

The truly amazing thing about the current council is how few of its members, even after several terms, have developed any expertise in the affairs of the municipal government. It shows. For example, real understanding of all-important fiscal matters is scarce among council members, even though the budget is the one area where the council has power and can influence the direction of city governance.

A recent committee hearing on the Baltimore Development Corp. underscored this weakness.

Since none of the council members seemed to know anything about the city's quasi-governmental development agency, much time was spent in explaining the obvious and the elemental. In the end, members of the committee still had to rely on the presenters' say-so because they lacked independent knowledge of the agency and its work.

Among the many useless council committees, the education panel, chaired by Councilman Carl Stokes, is the exception that proves nothing is basically wrong with the committee system except for a pervasive lack of interest and leadership.

Mr. Stokes' committee did not acquire its potency overnight. It had to fight the Schmoke and school administrations for cooperation. It also created a broad-based advisory council that meets twice a month to make sure the committee's focus stays sharp.

If one councilman can make the system work, surely others ought to be able to do so as well.

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