City Council rebuked for impoliteness Frustrated president issues code of conduct in letter to members

September 26, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

At times, Baltimore's City Council has had all the tact and professionalism of a late-night barroom brawl.

Twice in two years, fists were bared. Once, the word "racist" passed a member's lips. Shouts have become commonplace. And occasionally, the call for a vote comes as a great surprise.

Fed up, Council President Lawrence A. Bell III today will fire off a missive to all 18 members outlining new rules of conduct that begin Monday when the council returns from its summer recess. He is ordering them:

Not to impugn another council member's character, integrity or motives.

To stay in their seats and remain quiet while Bell is talking.

Not to refer to council members by any name other than "council person" or "colleague."

To call Bell "Mr. President" at all times.

To speak just once on an issue until everyone else has spoken.

"We want to tighten up procedures all around," Bell said yesterday. "We are also considering taking a little time to do some training for council people. So often I have to restate motions because council people are not really up on the rules."

Others agree that council manners could improve.

"It is the worst I have seen it," said 6th District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes. "I believe that there are some situations that -- if not handled properly -- could come to physical blows."

But Stukes is skeptical of Bell and his new directive on decorum. "We will see how long this lasts."

During the last session of the council, before the summer recess, Stukes and 1st District Councilman John L. Cain had a nasty barb-tinged skirmish over the budget. It later deteriorated into name-calling and near fisticuffs.

Stukes, who is black, said, and still believes, that Cain, who is white, implied that Stukes was racist. Incensed, Stukes warned Cain and his colleagues that similar comments would be met with force unless a police officer led Stukes out in handcuffs.

Still disgusted by the incident, Cain refused to discuss it yesterday.

Stukes subsequently penned a letter, cautioning that Bell was ,, losing his grip on the council.

"I have received numerous calls from colleagues as well as constituents expressing deep concern and distress at how this council is permitted to conduct official business," Stukes wrote June 19.

One of the most notable instances of a lack of council courtesy occurred during a contentious meeting in February 1996.

The council was debating whether to reconfirm Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III when two East Baltimore councilmen on opposing sides got into a verbal wrangle. The 2nd District's Robert L. Douglass and Anthony J. Ambridge, then representing the 2nd District, cursed each other, their noses inches apart.

Then 4th District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon screamed at Bell as he engineered a temporary rejection of Henson's nomination.

At times, Bell has admonished council members for sauntering into the chambers well after the meeting has started and leaving for the night while other members are addressing issues.

He has chastised members for holding private conversations while business is being conducted on the floor. Some council members have even missed votes because they weren't paying attention.

All in all, the council chamber has been quite a scene.

"I believe sometimes [council people] get caught up in the emotions of the moment," said 3rd District Councilman Robert Curran, "and perhaps they should learn to be a little bit more subdued and professional."

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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