O'Malley facing new challenges

Observers say mayor must broaden focus beyond crime fighting

`The clock is ticking'

Education, housing, poverty among issues gaining attention

April 24, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

For the first time since taking office, Mayor Martin O'Malley had intended to take a day off Friday -- a sign that the first act of his frenetic mayoral tenure had come to an end.

It didn't happen. The killing of a police officer in the line of duty shattered that plan. But rest or not, O'Malley must gear up for the next stage of his young mayoral career. His first act, which included naming two police commissioners and sparring with judges, will be hard to top.

"I've been very impressed, and I'm a natural cynic," Douglas Munro, president of the conservative Calvert Institute for Public Policy Research, said of O'Malley's debut. "Yet there is a lot more wrong with Baltimore than just the crime issue. If crime evaporated tomorrow, the city would still be falling apart at the seams between finances and trash and everything else."

Tightly focusing the first four months on reducing city crime, O'Malley is under pressure to address other needs -- from housing to jobs and poverty -- with the same fervor. As with any great production that provides crisis, hope, action, humor and conflict, O'Malley faces the tough task of continuing to meet the expectations of his city audience.

With two months to go before the six-month mark, O'Malley has much to do to accomplish an ambitious list of goals, including: Improving city schools. O'Malley wants to develop a national recruitment strategy for qualified principals and teachers. His influence on city schools has been minimal. The mayor will have input in filling four vacancies on the nine-member school board this summer.

Improving the Department of Public Works' efficiency. O'Malley has hit several major goals in this arena, including holding a big spring cleanup, introducing legislation to create a Parking Authority and initiating an audit by local business leaders into department practices. Left on his list, however, is developing a "Zero Tolerance on Grime" policy, streamlining the department's contract process and modifying trash collection to make it more efficient.

Boosting city neighborhoods. O'Malley wants to create a Mayor's Business Roundtable, evaluate the performance of the city's empowerment zones and convene a neighborhoods planning group.

"There is a recognition that the focus has been on crime," said Rob Hess, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore-based Center For Poverty Solutions. "And although we realize that's important, there are other issues.

"People are pumped, and they want to make things happen," Hess added. "We're kind of waiting in line."

On Thursday, O'Malley will meet with members of the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The citizens group has become one of the city's most active during the past year, testifying and holding hearings on lending to the poor, the practice of house "flipping" and the need to force banks to invest in poor neighborhoods.

Group leaders say they hope the meeting will help put housing problems on the radar screen of the new administration.

"The crime issue is central to the problems in Baltimore, and the mayor would be foolish not to address it," ACORN Coordinator Mitchell Klein said. "Personally, I believe there are criminals in the housing market, and those infrastructure issues are things he needs to address."

`Stay focused'

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a former West Baltimore City Council member and congressman who declined a campaign last year to get him to run for mayor, said O'Malley "has to stay focused on the issues."

"The difference between a good mayor and mediocre mayor is making sure that you set the issues and that others aren't raising issues for you."

O'Malley said he is comfortable with the progress his administration has made, despite the setback in implementing the crime plan caused by the departure of former police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel.

Although the city didn't fare as well as it would have liked in the General Assembly session, O'Malley achieved several six-month goals, including obtaining additional state drug treatment money, permission to allow tax incentives to spur economic development and a law allowing the Motor Vehicle Administration to deny licenses and registrations to fugitives.

"I really do think I am right where the public feels I should be," O'Malley said. "I feel pressure from constituent groups but not from constituents."

City political veterans who have watched previous administrations say O'Malley has two factors in his favor. His political detractors -- mostly African- American city activists who also opposed his candidacy -- remain fractured, a split visible in their inability to derail the nomination of Edward T. Norris as police commissioner.

In addition, O'Malley is gaining extended leeway from city residents hoping that he can put the city back on track.

"What the people want most is someone who really cares," said city Real Estate Officer Anthony J. Ambridge, a former East Baltimore councilman. "People will give you a chance."

Up to the challenge

Political consultant Carol Arscott, who tracked the city's tumultuous mayor's race last year, said O'Malley has met that test.

"I don't think anybody doubts his sincerity and commitment to the city," Arscott said. "Yet I'm sure he looks forward to settling in, and I'm sure that what the people of Baltimore want is for him to deliver."

O'Malley is eagerly waiting for reports from the Greater Baltimore Committee and President's Roundtable business groups, who volunteered to study city government and recommend improvements. The mayor would like to see the new crime plan begin to bear fruit and reduce city homicides that are outpacing last year's.

"No business plan can bring you instant profits, and no crime reduction plan can bring you instant crime reduction," O'Malley said last week. "I've learned that there has to be some balance to urgency. But you know the clock is ticking."

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