Bell missing in action after defeat in primary

He cancels meeting of council, skips Board of Estimates

October 14, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Where is City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III?

For months before September's primary election, he called himself the Cal Ripken of meeting attendance -- always in the game, never missing a Board of Estimates or City Council meeting.

But increasing absences from meetings since the primary have his council colleagues and other city leaders wondering about Bell's whereabouts.

This week, he canceled Tuesday night's council meeting and skipped yesterday's Board of Estimates meeting without ensuring that the council's seat on the board was filled by another representative, usually the council's vice president.

Bell's critics say the council president's absences illustrate his lack of leadership and signal that he has given up working two months before his term ends. His supporters argue that he's preparing himself for life outside Baltimore politics and adjusting to his unexpected defeat in the mayoral race.

"In my 15 years with the city, this is only the second time that nobody was there for the council," said Anthony J. Ambridge, the city's real estate officer, who regularly attends the Board of Estimates meetings. "Both times have been absences by [Bell] since the primary. It's like he's totally given up his job."

Some of Bell's council colleagues say he seems to have disappeared from City Hall.

"He hasn't been around much," said Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, the Democratic nominee for council president in November's election. "Despite the lame duck issue, business still goes on. We were elected, and we have a responsibility."

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said, "We have a great deal of work to do before the class adjourns. When [this week's council meeting] was canceled, it was a flashing red light that the important business of the council is being neglected or abandoned."

Other council members defended Bell, saying they have spoken to him in recent days and that Bell's staff continues to move the council's business forward even when he is absent.

`Doing a good job'

"When he was campaigning, the office continued working," said Councilman Robert Curran. "I imagine the same thing is happening now. They're doing a good job."

Councilwoman Rita R. Church said she has seen Bell and sees no problems with his recent absences. "I've seen him. I've communicated with him," she said.

No one could say where Bell -- a $65,000-a-year city employee and the only full-time council member -- has been this week.

David Brown, Bell's spokesman, declined to comment about his boss' whereabouts. "I will refer this to him. I'm not at liberty to answer any questions for him as to where he was," Brown said.

Bell did not show up at City Hall. He did not answer calls to his home. And he did not respond to visits to his Auchentoroly Terrace rowhouse or his condominium in the Belvedere on East Chase Street.

Bell lists his official residence as an apartment above his father's Auchentoroly Terrace dental office. That office is closed on Wednesdays, and no one answered the telephone there yesterday.

Expressions of concern

Staff members, city leaders and others have expressed concern about how Bell is responding to his loss last month in the mayoral primary. Bell was considered by many to be the front-runner in the race at the beginning of the year.

As council president, a post he won in a hard-fought campaign in 1995, Bell is the No. 2 political official in the city after the mayor. The 12-year councilman has also had strong name recognition in Baltimore.

But revelations of personal financial problems, a protest at a mayoral opponent's endorsement rally and the purchase with campaign money of more than $4,000 in clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City appear to have hurt him in the election.

His defeat has left him searching for a new career. Meanwhile, his council colleagues and other city leaders are proceeding with city business and wonder what role Bell will play in it.

"He has been diligent in his attendance," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "I suspect he's probably involved in some transition activities himself."

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