Reform a touchstone for council's top job

Candidates decry political impotence of Baltimore body

August 30, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,Sun Staff

In the past year, the Baltimore City Council has been accused of being politically impotent, failing to understand the city budget and being too large to be efficient.

Such criticism of the 19-member panel and talk of reforming it increase the importance of next month's Democratic primary election for City Council president.

Council President Lawrence A. Bell III is running for mayor and stepping down, leaving the city's second-highest office up for grabs. In addition to being next in line to the mayor, the holder of the $65,000-a-year job chairs the city's powerful five-member spending panel, the Board of Estimates.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about the campaign for president of the Baltimore City Council in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly listed the director of finance among members of the mayor's Cabinet who sit on the Board of Estimates. The public works director, the city solicitor and the mayor sit on the board from the administration, along with the City Council president and comptroller. The Sun regrets the error.

Six Democratic candidates hope to succeed Bell, with most agreeing that restoring political relevance to the council is the goal.

As a council incumbent, West Baltimore Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, 45, has heard the gripes and agrees the council has lost respect. The 12-year council veteran who is running for the top job believes that members of the six-district city legislature are too parochial, putting the concerns of their district and electability before the concerns of the city as a whole.

Dixon hopes to reverse the goals.

"We should all be singing the same tune," she said. "If not, our credibility will continue to deteriorate."

Dixon, a council loyalist of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, lists repairing the city budget, focusing attention on schools and improving council relationships with state and federal governments as key council priorities.

"We all campaign on issues and then we get elected and what happens?" said Dixon, who last week received the endorsement of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "We should not lose sight of why we're there."

Dixon faces a tough challenge from two Baltimore politicians in former state Sen. Nathan C. Irby Jr. and city Clerk of Courts Frank M. Conaway.

Conaway, 66, was a state delegate for eight years between 1971 and 1983 before losing an election after a scandal over the alleged misuse of $200,000 in insurance premiums. No charges were filed.

Last September, he completed a political resurrection by besting a nine-candidate field to become clerk of court with 22 percent of the vote.

Smaller Board of Estimates

Conaway says he's running for the council president's job, hoping to balance the power between the city's legislature and the mayor. Conaway proposes reducing the size of the city Board of Estimates from five to three members, eliminating the public works and finance directors, who are hired by the mayor and traditionally side with him in votes.

Conaway's proposal comes despite a bid for mayor by his wife, Mary W. Conaway.

Conaway also said he would move council committee hearings into neighborhoods and seek a system of pay increases for city employees based on equal sums rather than percentages, which provide more money for higher-paid workers.

"There hasn't been proper leadership," Conaway said. "The council has to make up its mind that it is not going to function as it has in the past."

Many council veterans agree that the power of recent councils has been restricted because Schmoke holds majority support with at least 10 votes. With a new mayor coming on board with no guarantees of getting the same backing, the council could re-establish its independence.

The debate over handling city or district issues has raged for years. Veterans of the body defend the district operations, noting that they are the first line of response to city residents' requests. They blame the dilution of council power over citywide issues on the mayor's 10 supporting votes.

"We need a council who will stand up to the administration," said Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., who represents Southeast Baltimore.

Budget repair sought

Irby, 67, is also trying to resuscitate his political career. The former councilman who served from 1974 to 1982 was elected to the state Senate for 12 years. He stepped down in 1994, saying he was burned out, and has been executive secretary to the state Board of Liquor License Commissioners since 1996.

Irby is holding up his legislative experience and state government contacts as his greatest assets. The city gets one of every four dollars of its $1.8 billion yearly budget from the state. Irby says the council's key goal should be repairing the city's projected $153 million budget deficit over the next four years.

"The budgetary process in the legislature is key," Irby said.

Dixon has criticized both of her chief opponents for failing to attend City Council meetings, saying they know little about its operation. Both men say political experience, not council experience, is the key to better leadership.

"You don't spend eight years on the council and 12 years in the Senate without knowing something," Irby said.

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