Here's way to test snow removal A modest proposal: If George G. Balog, Baltimore's public works director, thinks he's done so well clearing the streets, let him try getting votes for his job.

The Political Game

January 16, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

AT THE HEIGHT of last week's first snowstorm, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. joked with Gov. Parris N. Glendening about the importance of snow removal to his 1998 re-election bid.

Mr. Miller cited the oft-told tale of Jane M. Byrne's defeat of Chicago Mayor Michael A. Bilandic in that city's 1979 Democratic primary. Ms. Byrne walloped Mr. Bilandic, who was supported by former Mayor Richard J. Daley's machine, by beating the incumbent about the head and ears with the issue of snow removal -- or the lack thereof.

Closer to home, former Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden took it on the chin in his failed 1994 re-election bid, in part because of his adminstration's blundered snow-and-ice removal efforts. His successor, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, knows the value of a plowed street and made it clear last week that he won't be making the same mistake.

But Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke must have forgotten those stories, based on the way a lot of city streets still look.

Public Works Director George G. Balog and other officials

appear to be removing some of the snow from city streets the old-fashioned way: They're letting it melt.

Of course, since the voters returned Mr. Schmoke last year, he doesn't have to worry for another four years (unless he has trained his sights elsewhere) about a fate similar to Mr. Bilandic's. And Mr. Balog has nothing to worry about, because he's the mayor's appointee.

So in an effort to keep government responsive, herewith is a proposal to make Baltimore's director of public works an elected position, instead of an appointed post.

There is no doubt that the three storms that hit the city last week were killers, but the cleanup effort has been questionable.

Don't take your correspondent's word for it that:

* All three through lanes of the Jones Falls Expressway weren't plowed clear until Thursday -- four days after the storm.

* Some residents of this great city -- where the tax rate is the highest in the state -- didn't see a plow until at least Sunday, a full week after the first storm, and some are still waiting.

* Once cars were towed off -- or moved during peak hours -- from the major streets, the city didn't bother to plow to the curb.

Instead, put the question to the people. Let the voters decide.

Their response would probably surprise Mr. Balog, particularly because he said yesterday that he believed his department was doing an "excellent" job.

He's the same city official who discovered a trash problem in this city in August 1994, the year before his two-term mayor faced a primary fight. This year, the electorate could force him to discover snow.

Asked if he thought taxpayers of the city would elect him, based on his snow-removal efforts in the past eight days, he said: "I have no aspirations to get involved in politics."

OK, that's clear, but do you think they'd vote for you if the City Charter were suddenly changed, and you had to stand for election?

"I walked these streets for three days, and in those three days, only maybe two or three people complained to me," he said. "Most of them were coming up to me, shaking my hand, saying we're doing a great job, a fantastic job. In one neighborhood ladies were coming out giving me tea, saying we were doing a fantastic job. This is the kind feedback I'm getting."

Mr. Balog had lots of statistics yesterday to prove he did a "remarkable" job in the three storms.

"Ordinarily, we do 50 percent of the side streets; we're at 98 percent of the side streets," Mr. Balog said. "We've used 15,400 tons of salt, and we use 17,000 during an ordinary season.

"We used 400 men and women around the clock, 12 [on] and 12 [off]. We had roughly 124 plows on the street at any one time, and 60 other pieces of equipment [such as] front-end loaders," he continued, rattling off stats as fast as you could write. "There are 800 miles of main streets and 1,200 miles of side streets -- 33,000 blocks in this city."

Fine, but why does southbound Charles Street narrow from two lanes to one at the city line? Why were only 1 1/2 to two lanes of St. Paul Street -- a four-lane arterial that is the main southbound street into the city -- plowed clear?

"Don't judge the performance by one street, because there are 2,000 miles of streets in this city," Mr. Balog said. "Judge the performance by the results we got. Judge it from the big picture."

Judging it from any angle, if such a mythical election were tomorrow, let's just say it's a good thing Mr. Balog has his law degree to fall back on.

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