Roused City Council puts on show worth watching

March 02, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Anyone looking for Monday night entertainment should forgo forego watching television or cruising the Internet and head down to the City Council chambers -- which could also be known as the Bastion of Biliousness.

This past Monday Feb. 26as they voted to confirm housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, some council members outdid themselves by turning in exhilarating performances. They traded insults. They chastised each other. Some called down divine retribution on council President Lawrence A. Bell III for the way he opened the meeting. One implied that those opposed to Henson's confirmation had racist motives.

It was, as the British might say, a jolly good show. Here was a contentious City Council fighting, debating and questioning instead of doing that for which it has been known throughout the years: rolling over for whoever happens to be mayor.

The 12-7 vote in favor of Henson and council President Bell's defiance of the mayor are healthy developments. The prophecies of doom, divisiveness and ineffective government have no validity. Bell, in starting the meeting and having a confirmation vote before most of Henson's council supporters were seated, was sending a message to the mayor and his supporters: Best stay on your toes and keep your eyes open, folks; there's actually an organized legislative opposition to the mayor here.

Let's not underestimate how important such opposition is in Baltimore. Mayors here -- especially those re-elected after two terms -- have a tendency to think that they weren't so much voted in as crowned. This was the case with the petulant William Donald Schaefer, the last of the great egotists to hold the job.

In 1986, after Schaefer became governor, Clarence "Du" Burns took over as mayor -- making it clear that he was little more than a Schaefer clone. Some of us Baltimorons were smart enough to harbor the sneaking suspicion that with Burns as mayor, Schaefer was still running the city.

Anti-Schaeferites felt the situation was remedied in 1987 when one Kurt L. Schmoke was elected mayor. But then a strange thing happened. In the ultimate political double-cross, Kurt Lidell Schmoke became William Donald Schaefer -- with all the ego quirks, passion for secrecy in government, contempt for accountability, vindictiveness and pettiness of his predecessor.

Make no mistake about it. This city needs a legislature that will keep its mayors properly leashed. This council may be well on the way to doing it. An exquisite irony might await those who now support the mayor and oppose President Bell: Three years from now Schmoke may have returned to the judicial branch of government where he belongs and Bell may be mayor. The council president may be the 4th District's Sheila Dixon, who read Bell the riot act Monday for his premature start. I find the thought electrifying.

Since readers may want to know who the loyal opposition on the council is, as well as those who gave quite legitimate reasons for confirming Henson, the roll call is printed below:

* President Bell said the council's duty as a legislative oversight body required that questions about Henson be answered and voted no.

* John L. Cain said "Henson's strengths are also his weaknesses" and voted no.

* Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. voted no, citing numerous calls from constituents urging him to do so.

* Lois Garey said that since the mayor refused to postpone the confirmation, "I feel there is no other responsible vote. I vote no."

* Anthony J. Ambridge, the only council member to vote against Henson four years ago, did so again and chided those who said race was a factor. "It demeans the efforts of people who have fought against discrimination," Ambridge said.

* Paula Johnson Branch said her 2nd District constituents "have seen the outstanding job [Henson] has done for this district" and voted yes.

* Robert L. Douglass expressed his anger with Bell before voting yes.

* Joan Carter Conway said the issue wasn't race but "competence and management." She voted no.

* Robert Curran said the city's problems are deeper than "one man or one council" and voted yes.

* Martin O'Malley said, "I would like a housing commissioner who has some respect for this body's legislative duties," and voted "an emphatic no."

* Dixon said Henson had changed the lives of people in her district "both physically and spiritually" and that the 4th was ignored until the Schmoke administration. She voted yes, as did Kieffer J. Mitchell Jr.

* Agnes B. Welch was on the council 0when some of Henson's predecessors ran housing. She said he was the best of the lot. "You have a good commissioner of housing," she said, and voted yes.

* Helen Holton, Rochelle Spector and Stephanie Rawlings all voted yes, as did 6th Districters Melvin L. Stukes and Edward L. Reisinger.

* Dr. Norman A. Handy Sr. of the 6th District voted yes and felt compelled to add that The Sun was a racist rag. This is the same paper that endorsed Kurt Schmoke in no fewer than four elections and recently named Kweisi Mfume Marylander of the Year. Some racism. Some rag.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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