In an attempt to bring City Hall closer to home, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has ordered an overhaul of 14 neighborhood offices that have been little more than distant outposts.
After three years of complaints, Mr. Schmoke acknowledged that his last reorganization of the offices did not work out and that many have failed to meet their mission of providing basic city services.
The mayor wants to revamp the City Hall field offices by staffing them with teams of housing inspectors, health workers, community police officers and other city employees. He also is likely to close several centers and replace some directors and staff.
"Some centers did well, but many others just did not serve the communities well," Mr. Schmoke said. "We've got some people where the communities sing their praises, and other people where the community would rather have them find other employment."
Set up as part of Mr. Schmoke's restructuring of city government in 1993, the 14 "hubs" have a $5.2 million yearly budget and about 100 workers. The staff mostly makes referrals to other city agencies.
The hubs replaced a network of "mayor's stations" created by former Mayor William Donald Schaefer to take care of the day-to-day problems of urban life. They also took over the anti-poverty programs of an agency Mr. Schmoke dismantled at the time.
Almost from the time of the hubs' inception, some civic leaders and City Council members have questioned their effectiveness.
"A lot of the moneys we spend on the hubs are duplicating efforts elsewhere," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who represents East Baltimore.
One of the most frequent criticisms is that the field offices don't have the authority to deal with commonplace problems, such as towing abandoned cars or fixing potholes. Some are so inactive that council members say they don't know the directors' names.
Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who is in charge of the hubs, agrees they have been little more than referral agencies. He is working on a reorganization, to take place this summer, to restaff the offices and link them by computer with City Hall.
The goal is to have "one-stop" offices where residents can pay sewer bills, pick up government forms or obtain building permits. "There's a lot of services that can be provided so people don't have to come downtown," he said.
The revamping marks a return to the concept of the mayor's stations, which were famous for cutting red tape. They were complemented by the Urban Services Agency, which distributed surplus food, provided energy assistance and helped the poor.
Both programs had been criticized as bastions of political patronage. The federal government ordered that the name of the mayor's stations be changed because of political concerns. Urban Services also came under fire in the 1980s for mismanaging a federally funded sanitation program.
In 1993, Mr. Schmoke merged them to save money, but now says the move failed because the two programs had "different missions" and "cultural conflict."
Councilwoman Joan Carter Conway, who represents Northeast Baltimore and worked for a hub in Govans, supports the plan to send teams of city employees into neighborhoods.
But she said despite the name change, many residents still see the field offices "as a political arm of the mayor."
She called for a staff overhaul, saying: "The ideology is fine -- it's the implementation."