Loyalty Instead of Competence

July 01, 1995

As the assistant director of Baltimore City's planning department, Al Barry has been widely recognized as a professional who gets things done. As the director's job has been filled with out-of-towners in recent years, Mr. Barry, after 23 years in the agency, had the institutional memory and intimate knowledge of the city and its neighborhoods. But he is being forced to leave July 14.

Exactly what happened is somewhat murky. Initially, Mr. Barry's position was abolished as a cost-saving measure. Now, it turns out, money has been found to pay for Mr. Barry's replacement. "I'm looking at our organizational structure, how the department is run and how it is run efficiently," says planning director Charles C. Graves.

So why was Mr. Barry purged? Politics, dear Watson. As a long-time stalwart in the Second District New Democratic Club, he was seen by some of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's loyalists as a stooge for City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is challenging the mayor. Some other long-time municipal employees have been let go in a similar fashion in recent weeks.

This sort of underhanded cleansing of competent, capable managers is doing damage to Baltimore City's government. One of the biggest weaknesses of the eight Schmoke years has been the mayor's inability to find good leaders for the various municipal departments. Instead of competence, he and his supporters seem willing to tolerate mediocrity as long as the litmus test of loyalty is met. Good planners by definition are independent people. That's something Mr. Schmoke doesn't seem to understand.

Just how pervasive this mind-set is in the Schmoke administration is underscored by the revelation -- confirmed by the principals -- that when the mayor finally decided to replace Robert Hearn as housing commissioner, he tried to interest Councilwoman Vera Hall to take over the troubled department. Never mind that aside from loyalty, Mrs. Hall has had little managerial experience or other specific skills to recommend her for that difficult job. To her credit, Mrs. Hall declined.

At a time of declining population and diminishing resources, Baltimore's planning department is faced with awesome challenges. Mr. Barry's departure raises troubling questions about the Schmoke administration's commitment to good and professional planning.

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