Trash tops a heap of urban problems

Cleanup campaigns usually lead agendas

March 24, 2000|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Why do politicians talk so much trash?

The conversation is universal, from small-town U.S.A. to Paris, where 33 mayors from across the globe gathered last week to talk about city life. And for all the troubles facing the world's urban areas, trash topped the list.

"Being a mayor is all about picking up trash, cleaning the streets, keeping them lighted and safe," Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony A. Williams told a reporter at the Paris Summit of World Mayors.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has turned trash cleanup into a campaign. All across Baltimore today and tomorrow a legion of volunteers, armed with rakes, brooms, shovels and trash bags will hit the streets for city's "Super Spring Sweep Thing."

They'll be joined by hundreds of trash trucks and professional cleanup crews.

It's perhaps one of the greatest feel-good events O'Malley could stage, political experts say. Trash, they say, depresses a community and leads to other problems, which can prematurely end a mayor's career.

"Trash is immediate. It's visible. It's bad for morale," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "A trashy street is more likely to invite crime than clean streets."

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger -- who holds a "Pitch In For Progress" every year, during which 5,000 people help clean up the community -- said he is sending support for O'Malley's effort because of the importance of neighborhood cleanups.

"Mayor O'Malley is right on target; if we don't take care of the trash, there will be no pride in our communities, and people will not want to be here," Ruppersberger said.

Cleanups have a long mayoral tradition.

O'Malley isn't the first Baltimore mayor to launch a clean-up effort.

During the late 1970s former Mayor William Donald Schaefer dubbed his anti-litter campaign "Trashball" and called on Baltimoreans to dunk their garbage in a can instead of on the street.

Then former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, O'Malley's immediate predecessor, tossed Schaefer's campaign for a new theme: "It's Your Baltimore. Don't Trash It!" The city spent $189,000 on the campaign, which included radio, television and print advertisements featuring Cal Ripken and Schmoke.

Schmoke also held an annual "Garbage Man Appreciation Day" to show support for trash collectors, serving them hot dogs and hamburgers off a flaming grill. Part of the reason is that political leaders must find the delicate balance between ensuring trash is picked up and keeping sanitation workers happy.

"This particular group of workers can shut down the city," said Glen Middleton, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the city's trash collectors.

In the past, striking sanitation workers in such places as New York have left communities overrun with garbage.

Middleton said Baltimore's sanitation workers and the city have generally maintained a good working relationship over recent years, and those ties seem to have transcended the change in administrations. O'Malley's "got great public appeal," he said.

Now the city's new mayor hopes to take some of that good will to the streets today with his own campaign, the "Super Spring Sweep Thing." O'Malley has not tallied the total cost of the cleanup effort, but he says, "The value of a clean city is priceless.

"The city is the center of our state, is the economic engine and should be a thing of pride for everyone whether you live in Baltimore County, whether you live in Ocean City, whether you live in Carroll, Harford or Anne Arundel, you should be proud of the city of Baltimore," O'Malley said.

But O'Malley and other city leaders know that if the streets aren't clean, the complaints go to city government.

"Every community meeting we attend, it's either crime or grime," said City Council President Sheila Dixon. "This is a major issue."

At times during the Schmoke administration, Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr.picked up hot water heaters, stoves, dirty flower pots and even sea shells to take to the dump because trash collectors did not pick up residents' garbage.

"I've done it all," D'Adamo said. "On my way home, I'd put the trash in my car and take it to the dump. Whatever I need to do to keep someone happy, not to lose a vote."

With such efforts, government leaders can find lifelong allies.

Former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said when mayors such as O'Malley focus on trash, they can win long-term voter support. She said when crews picked up a mattress at her house on Wednesday for bulk trash collection at the time they said they would arrive, she decided that she would forever support O'Malley's administration.

"I'll vote for O'Malley for the rest of my life," Clarke said. "When people want their trash removed or cleaned up, they want it done now.

"Local politics is the basic level of government: Take the trash away, take the crime away, and give us a good life. It's that simple."

Sun staff writer Gerard Shields contributed to this article.

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