Job familiar to neighborhoods chief

Baltimore native brings experience in city planning

April 09, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Even as Baltimore faces the possibility of deeper budget cuts, layoffs and tax increases, Mayor Martin O'Malley is stepping up the city's commitment to its neighborhoods.

O'Malley is creating a Cabinet-level Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods and has named as its chief Israel C. Patoka, 43, a Baltimore native and urban planner who said he understands the importance of dynamic communities.

"Neighborhoods are the backbone of this city," Patoka said. "If you lose them, you're done."

Seeming to underscore the importance of shoring up neighborhoods, O'Malley included $595,000 for Patoka's office in the preliminary budget plan submitted to the Board of Estimates late last month.

Under the proposal, the city would hire up to six neighborhood liaisons -- each of whom would act as City Hall's troubleshooter in an area of the city -- with Patoka as the office's $85,000-a-year director.

"Izzy's topnotch as an advocate inside government," O'Malley said.

The mayor said he expects Patoka to "lift neighborhoods under siege from crime and grime, to improve those under stress and to maintain neighborhoods which are stable."

`A positive sign'

Community groups seemed heartened that O'Malley has widened his focus from crime-fighting, which dominated his first year's agenda, to the city's neighborhoods.

Terri L. Turner, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, called Patoka's appointment and the new office "a positive sign."

"It recognizes there needs to be a coordinated strategy beyond crime and grime, a partnership with the city," Turner said.

Patoka has spent much of his first month not in City Hall, where he and his staff will be based, but touring neighborhoods and meeting community leaders.

From Irvington to Highlandtown, from Locust Point to the neighborhoods along North Avenue, Patoka has been walking the streets, keeping so busy that "I had to make a date with my wife to have dinner," he said.

Experience with city

Patoka, who lives in Dickeyville with his wife, Denise Watkins, an architect working on the Memorial Stadium site redevelopment, is well-versed with the city's planning efforts.

He spent his early career as a city planner, working for Larry Reich, who left his mark on Baltimore as its planning director from 1965 to 1990.

Patoka rose through the department's ranks to become chief of capital budgeting for the city, which is when he met O'Malley, then a city councilman from Northeast Baltimore.

Patoka left the city in 1996 and most recently was Baltimore County's deputy director of planning.

"I've been a bureaucrat my whole life," he said with a smile.

Patoka said he was enthusiastic about starting a new direction for the O'Malley administration, in which he will be one of the mayor's most-visible links to the grass roots.

Setting priorities

A top priority in his new assignment will be offering "one stop" for residents to register complaints, concerns and ideas about their communities, and having the appropriate agency respond within a day, he said.

An equally important role, he said, will be to work with the Planning Department to implement O'Malley's Neighborhood Planning Program, a citywide initiative designed to involve residents in community development, housing and land-use issues.

Patoka will be responsible for making the neighborhood plans a reality.

A former Planning Department colleague, Alfred W. Barry III, said Patoka brings a strong fiscal background and an analytic bent toward problem-solving to O'Malley's Cabinet.

"Many of the issues cut across department lines, and [O'Malley] will need a neighborhood policy as he rebuilds the city," said Barry, a former deputy director of planning and now a consultant.

O'Malley has repeatedly stated his aim to help neighborhoods set and realize goals. Patoka's arrival is a move that community leaders said they welcome.

"Support, planning, money, resources and attention can't come too soon," said Turner of CPHA. "At the end of the day, people live in neighborhoods."

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