Mayor inviting business input

O'Malley gives leaders earlier, larger city role than predecessors did

May 14, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In getting Baltimore business advisers to help restructure the city's Fire Department, Mayor Martin O'Malley gained what elected leaders covet in making difficult decisions about city services: a political shield.

O'Malley so far has deflected criticism leveled at him last week over his proposal to close seven fire stations by stressing that an independent, volunteer panel of city business leaders made the recommendation.

"It takes the politics out of it," O'Malley said of the business leaders' report. "I don't think you can say they looked at [the firehouse closings] with [City] Council districts in mind."

By relying on the Greater Baltimore Committee and Presidents' Roundtable for management advice, O'Malley seems willing to go beyond efforts of Baltimore mayors to embrace business leaders. He has asked an estimated 200 of them to review every major city department, creating a powerful role for the business community in shaping public policy.

But critics of the strategy -- mostly labor union leaders -- feel the business leaders' input into city government is an erosion of the mayor's elected duty.

"It's the same thing that Congress does when they don't have the guts to deal with a tough issue -- they appoint a blue-ribbon panel," said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association. "It takes government out of the hands of government."

O'Malley makes no apologies for his efforts and has warned residents and city employees that more drastic action can be expected to help fend off a three-year projected budget deficit of $140 million.

Before the city's next fiscal year begins July 1, a steady stream of reports similar to the one on the Fire Department on agencies such as public works, health and housing will be issued by the business advisers.

"We are committed to implementing these recommendations," O'Malley said. "They will be well-researched, comprehensive and achievable."

For the Fire Department report, a 10-member group studied the agency, employing computer modeling, fire industry standards and National Fire Prevention Administration Guidelines in recommending the closings.

Even Fugate acknowledges the political advantage.

"They're good business people and good citizens," Fugate said. "How do you dispute that?"

Philadelphia example

Bringing business leaders into City Hall matches a similar partnership in Philadelphia that is credited with saving that city from bankruptcy.

When he took office eight years ago, Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell created the Mayor's Private Sector Task Force on Management and Productivity, a group of 300 business executives that helped the city spot waste and inefficiency.

Recommendations from Philadelphia business leaders helped Rendell turn a $1.4 billion deficit in 1992 into a $200 million budget surplus by the time he left office in December.

Administrators for the GBC, a 600-member group of Baltimore business and civic leaders, were so impressed they hired one of Rendell's former aides to help undertake a similar study under O'Malley.

Baltimore's early attempts

Business partnerships with the city are nothing new. Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer helped resuscitate the city by mobilizing business support.

But opening the doors to City Hall hasn't happened to such an extent since 1923, when businessman William J. Casey recommended that 25 of the city's largest businesses send in their experts to make city government more efficient.

In their first year, the businessmen organized a payroll system, formed the Department of Public Works, established an independent auditing arm and conducted an inventory of city assets at no cost to the government.

"The businesses are in the city, and they tend to have their fingers on the pulse," said Arnold Williams, head of the President's Roundtable, a group of 23 African-American business leaders that has teamed with the GBC for the O'Malley effort.

Unlike O'Malley, who is still in the early months of his administration, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke first tried to involved the business community in 1992, a year into his second term. He met with marginal success.

Limited results

In an effort to corral runaway spending as the city's tax revenue dwindled from homeowner exodus, Schmoke welcomed a few dozen GBC business leaders to make recommendations. But of the several changes offered, the only lasting contribution adopted was a change in the city's printing operations.

Schmoke made a second attempt to use business management strategies for city spending two years ago when he created the Millennium Group.

The group of six city officials, headed by former City Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, recommended that Baltimore consider hiring private companies to deliver city services. City labor unions, long considered critical to mayoral and council election efforts, derailed the effort.

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