Advice for a mayor: Accent the negative

Lesson: Past and present leaders of large American cities caution the next municipal chief of Baltimore to learn how to say no.

May 30, 1999|By Gerard Shields

PHILADELPHIA MAYOR Ed Rendell, once dubbed "America's Mayor" by the Wall Street Journal, concludes that, to be successful, Baltimore's next mayor will need to learn one word:

No.

As the mayor of the City of Brotherly Love for the past eight years, the former district attorney is credited with turning the city around, taking it from a $230 million budget deficit to a $169 million surplus, a feat that made him the subject of a book called "Prayer For The City."

Learning to say no might seem like a simplistic tip on how to run an American city such as Baltimore, with a budget close to $2 billion. Indeed, Rendell acknowledges that the task is easier said than done.

Rendell fought for $300 million in health-benefit concessions from city workers and cracked down on tax collections, making sure that businesses had privilege licenses -- acts that initially made him the most unpopular man in Philadelphia.

"The trick to running government is that most of requests that you will get for spending are extremely legitimate," Rendell said during the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors convention in Washington, D.C. "The most important requisite that [Baltimore's] next mayor can have is the ability to say no to legitimate things that he or she would like to help."

No doubt, with the troubles facing Baltimore, a tough mayor with a disregard for being popular is the prescription that city residents desire. The city's 47th mayor will step into a new century facing $153 million in budget deficits, 300 murders a year, a 9 percent unemployment rate (double the national average), 59,000 drug-addicted constituents, and a citizenry in which 40 percent of the residents fail to hold high school diplomas.

Despite these woes, the city race is expected to erupt into a free-for-all after last week's announcement by NAACP President Kweisi Mfume that he will not be a candidate.

Democratic front-runners include City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and former Councilman Carl Stokes. Other declared candidates include Register of Wills Mary Conaway, City Wide Coalition candidate A. Robert Kaufman and community activists William E. Roberts Sr. and Phillip A. Brown Jr. Republican candidates Arthur W. Cuffie Jr. and Roberto Marsili, both neighborhood activists, also have filed for the race.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown agrees with Rendell that politicians who need to be loved by all need not apply for what has become increasingly known as the toughest job in American politics. The former California State Assembly leader has handled his share of city woes, particularly trying to aid the 16,000 homeless wandering his city. Brown's biggest tip to the incoming Baltimore mayor is to surround him- or herself with good cabinet members.

"You can't worry about being re-elected," said Brown, elected mayor in 1995.

Former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer agrees. "Worry about doing your job," said Schaefer, the state comptroller. "And you'll get re-elected."

Because of suburban flight -- a trend that continues to cost Baltimore 1,000 residents a month -- big-city mayors see City Hall as the incubator for government innovation for one reason: necessity.

With stagnating property-tax revenue and rising costs of providing everything from police protection to trash collection, mayors must find new ways to provide essential services. Increasingly, city governments across the nation have been forced to focus on the bottom line, much like businesses.

Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith has been praised for his move that allows city workers to compete with private companies to handle city services. Not only has the city provided less expensive services, Goldsmith says, but the work and the attitudes of the workers are better.

"I used to be a lawyer, so when I got elected mayor, I knew very little about managing a business," Goldsmith said in a recent Pittsburgh speech. "So I said, 'Let me see the financials,' because it seemed like something you should say. The guys looked around and said, 'We never had a mayor ask that.'"

Seeing the financials is critical, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says. Schmoke recently delivered the last of his 12 budgets, noting that the city will finish next year breaking even. But Baltimore faces a deficit that could rise to $153 million in four years.

"You have to understand budgets," Schmoke said. "It's boring and dry as dirt, but it's crucial."

Three years ago, Newsweek surveyed what it considered America's 25 most dynamic mayors. The common thread, they concluded, was that the good mayors possessed two key qualities: a common touch and a big personality.

Schaefer is one of the nation's most acclaimed mayors of the last half-century, mainly for presiding over the restoration of the Inner Harbor. But locals remember him for his willingness to sit down at their cafe table or pull them over at Lexington Market and ask their opinions on city matters.

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