O'Malley cannot fix city alone

January 04, 2001|By Sheila Jordan

CITY EMPLOYEES, like other Baltimore citizens, are taking the measure of Mayor Martin O'Malley as he moves into the second year of his term. Mr. O'Malley, after all, is not only our mayor, he is also our boss. How's he done? And what can we expect in 2001?

There is good news.

A shining example of an O'Malley success is the new enforcement of lead paint cleanup. Before this year, city lead inspectors could issue lead violation notices to negligent landlords but had no enforcement power. They were frustrated and disgusted. Mr. O'Malley said, "I want those landlords in court." He brought in state attorneys who trained our inspectors to research property titles and to testify in front of a judge.

Mr. O'Malley set a goal of 100 prosecutions by Sept. 1; the health department, morale soaring, actually hit 103 prosecutions by that date. "We finally got to see these property owners come to court and pay for what they've done," said one inspector who had been working 10-hour days and weekends. "We smiled."

This is an important example of teamwork and interdependency.

Where the delivery of city services is an issue, the mayor needs able and productive city workers. The workers, along with the mayor, are the hands of good government. From social worker to biologist, lead inspector to filing clerk, day-care provider to trash collector, we represent a dramatic cross-section of Baltimore society. We also represent an equally enormous investment in training and expertise. We love this city, and it's not just a sentimental love. It's the love that comes from personal knowledge of the jobs that we do.

The majority of Baltimore's work force lives -- and votes -- in the city. We use the same services that we provide; we pay the taxes that flow into city paychecks; we are imbedded in the process, and we are just as angry as everyone else when our leaves aren't picked up.

But in the first year of the O'Malley administration, city workers felt invisible. We were alarmed to read the report, "Managing For Success," written by the business interests of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) at Mr. O'Malley's request and released July 25. It praised frontline workers as "the most knowledgeable experts on city operations" yet did not interview any of them before making 250 recommendations for change.

Why were we excluded?

As public employees, we can't help but hear the drumbeat of privatization -- that is, selling city services to private interests. Privatization always sounds good, but in other cities it has resulted in the loss of accountability, expertise and infrastructure. Quite simply, private contractors live off public funds but are not accountable to the public when things go wrong. Often, privatization also means the loss of stable workers whose families anchor a city's life.

Last year also brought an anecdotal article in The Sun in August charging city workers with absenteeism and abuse of leave. The word "laziness" was particularly troubling to the many employees who work mandatory overtime, spend their off-hours carrying beepers or keep working on long and dangerous shifts because of unique job descriptions.

We have started to hear statistics that don't make sense about worker abuses. We feel like scapegoats. Some data comes from Mr. O'Malley's new CitiStat -- a significant attempt to monitor performance of city departments and increase accountability. CitiStat is only as good as the data it collects. Baltimore's Metro Labor Council has asked to observe CitiStat meetings. We want to monitor the process for accuracy and fairness since we can be tarred by the findings. The city has not granted our request. We hope for better this year.

We also hope that in contract negotiations this year, the city will respect workers' health benefits. Baltimore citizens probably don't know that, for our region, we are underpaid for what we do. Statewide, there is now a crisis of vacancies in public sector jobs. Our members tell us that Baltimore's reliable health plan is the magnet that keeps a stable work force in this city.

In response to the GBC's report on city services, the City Union of Baltimore will issue its own report to Mr. O'Malley on ideas for improving the city. He has told us that he wants to hear from us, and we believe him.

Like our mayor, we seek a more efficient and attractive city. We, too, know that our jobs depend on it. We are the workers who will make it happen. We expect to be more visible in the new year.

Sheila Jordan is president of the City Union of Baltimore. Connie McKenna, communications director with the American Federation of Teachers/Maryland, assisted in preparing this article.

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