Politics always gets in the way

June 21, 1995

Most elected officials probably mean to do the right thing. But too often they're afraid to take a step that might cost them votes for re-election. When that happens, they frequently sit on issues until whatever they do will have little impact.

With that in mind, consider the just concluded session of the Baltimore City Council. Its members made some important decisions, but also left much unresolved. Re-election politics got in the way.

The council took a wild stab at solving the eviction chattel problem. Furniture and other items left on the street for days make neighborhoods look trashy. Council Vice President Vera Hall's ostensible solution was to make landlords responsible for removing items left on the street after an eviction. But after both landlords and tenants criticized the idea, she put the legislation on hold.

The council did a lot of talking about the Education Alternatives Inc. contract to run nine city schools and about misspending and corruption in the city's emergency housing repair program. But council investigations into each of those hot topics have revealed little and likely will change even less.

The council acted more decisively in voting to raise the minimum wage for service workers hired by city contractors. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who early on had supported such action, began to back away from the deal when confronted with the expense to a city that already has enough money problems.

The council, however, responded to lobbying by a politically active church-based group, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. It approved the wage measure pushed by Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is running for mayor. Mr. Schmoke, who doesn't want BUILD against him, went along. One of his political vulnerabilities is a perception that he hasn't done enough to improve the daily lives of poor people.

The council is afraid of that charge, too. That's one reason it repealed the city's beverage container tax, pushed by beverage companies and merchants. But poor people who can't get to stores outside the city to buy beverages will also benefit. Council members depending on Mr. Schmoke to boost their re-election campaigns were afraid he would veto the repeal and place them in the anti-poor position of sustaining his veto. The mayor did lament the loss of revenue caused by the repeal. But after getting the council to delay the repeal's start until 1996, he went along.

The council did approve another austere Schmoke budget that still provides more money for education and police protection. The council also strengthened the city's ethics law. Too bad politics kept it from doing more.

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