Can Sheila Dixon give No. 2 job more muscle?

Revamp: New City Council president wants to cut the number of committees, change chairpersons.

November 04, 1999

HER INAUGURATION is still five weeks away, but Sheila Dixon, Baltimore's new No. 2 official, is ready to reorganize the City Council. She wants to slash the number of permanent committees, refocus them and appoint their leaders by seniority and expertise.

"I want to clean the slate and start afresh," Ms. Dixon, a three-term Fourth District councilwoman, declared yesterday as she outlined her agenda for reform.

That kind of revamp is welcome. Ineffective committees have often weakened the 18-member City Council, which already plays second fiddle to a strong mayor.

Ms. Dixon says she seeks a "partnership" with Martin O'Malley, the next mayor. She wants the council consulted about crucial appointments, such as the new police commissioner. She also wants the council to have an active role earlier in the budget process.

These are laudable goals. Whether they are achieved will give Baltimoreans an early indication of how well Mr. O'Malley and Ms. Dixon are working together.

Nothing prevents a mayor and a council president from working as a team. But in the past, that has proved a formidable -- and elusive -- goal.

Just as tough for Ms. Dixon will be attempting to cut the number of council committees from 12 to seven. That downsizing is certain to wrest coveted chairmanships from some members, particularly because Ms. Dixon wants a better geographic balance in leadership assignments. It is even more difficult because four of the 18 council members will be novices.

Various past council presidents have used different approaches toward committee work. Walter S. Orlinsky, who had the job for much of William Donald Schaefer's mayoral tenure, combined committees. Clarence "Du" Burns and Mary Pat Clarke increased their numbers. Ms. Clarke also had to quell a council revolt after she tinkered with chairmanships.

Lawrence A. Bell III favored giving novice council members chairmanships. Ms. Dixon now wants to emphasize seniority. There is no magic formula. All depends on the incoming president's skills and persuasiveness.

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