What City Council? Missing in action: Past year saw few signs of activity by Baltimore's legislative body.

January 02, 1998

IT MAY BE set up like a miniature legislature -- 18 members representing six districts and a separately elected president -- but the Baltimore City Council writes few laws of significance these days. Indeed, were it not for its annual budget convulsions and last year's inadequate hand-wringing over the planned Inner Harbor East hotel, one might wonder what kept this council busy.

Its proclivity for "constituent services" -- calling to get trash picked up and potholes filled -- again raises the question of whether the shrinking city needs a council this size.

In 1996, the council played an important fiscal role by pushing an employee early-retirement plan that saved money. It discussed several tax ideas last year, but concluded they were all too costly politically. Council President Lawrence A. Bell III instead suggested alternative budget cuts to those proposed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. In the end, the council sheepishly went along with Mr. Schmoke's plan to reduce the Department of Recreation and Parks.

This past year saw continuation of an argument over crime-fighting between 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. It is a semantics debate. Mr. O'Malley wants a "zero tolerance" policy akin to what helped New York lower its crime rate. Baltimore is doing similar things -- issuing citations for nuisance crimes, tracking criminal activity by computer, trying to establish a new misdemeanor court. It's just that Mr. Frazier refuses to call it "zero tolerance."

VTC The council did a lot of talking but could not thwart a decision to close the St. Paul Street branch of the Pratt Library. Proposed legislation that would force landlords to be responsible for discarded furniture and other items after an eviction went

nowhere. A proposal to allow public speakers at council meetings died with little discussion. And the council has to this point wilted under Mr. Schmoke's pressure to build an ill-placed convention hotel a mile away from the Convention Center.

The relevancy of the council can't help but be questioned. It's not just a void of leadership, it's a lack of ideas that make it an afterthought in some of the most important decisions affecting the city. A smaller council whose members might be more focused on the whole city rather than their divided fiefdoms would do a better job. If this council does nothing else, it would establish a great legacy by reducing its size.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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