Mayor trapped in his own box

May 31, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

BEWARE of the "box people." That's what Mayor Martin O'Malley told the graduates of the College of Notre Dame on North Charles Street Saturday.

It was a sound message, one that the graduates ought to heed. But in his address Baltimore's mayor may have revealed one of his own weaknesses - an inability to separate his friends from his enemies.

He's right that "box people" are to be avoided. These folks are tradition-bound. They're locked into a tried-and-true way of going about their jobs.

"Don't let the small little group of self-anointed and self-appointed so-called opinion-makersput you in their box. . ." he said. Beware of "professional limit-setters."

But the mayor also confused obstructionist "box people" with some of his allies.

"Box people" are tradition-bound folks locked into doing things the tried-and-true way.

For them, change is something to fear, something to resist.

The bureaucracy is loaded with "box people." So are many corporations.

Creativity is discouraged. Frank, no-holds-barred discussions are anathema. Thinking "outside the box" is just not part of the routine.

Holding onto your job is what counts. And that's best achieved by following rules, without exceptions. Keep your head down.

City agencies function this way, the mayor said. And newspaper editorial boards.

Well, at least the mayor got it half right.

To say most city agencies are stultified, rigidly run operations not wild about making changes is an understatement.

That's not the case with newspaper editorial boards.

The mayor said the "box people" invariably give him one of four responses when change is proposed:

"That won't work in Baltimore. That costs too much. We've tried that and it didn't work. We're already doing that."

Sad but true. Moving a bureaucracy, creating a new way of looking at things - a paradigm shift - is immensely difficult.

That's because it requires a fundamental change in how you look at your job.

You've got to start viewing your job from the customers' perspective. What would it take to make customers satisfied? How can we do the same thing more efficiently but also more cheaply?

Can we make our jobs more enjoyable and satisfying? Sure, higher pay helps, but satisfaction doesn't flow from a paycheck.

That's what the mayor was trying to tell CND graduates. Don't let the "box people" get you down, don't give up your energy, enthusiasm and idealism.

Mr. O'Malley ought to deliver that same message to every city department, then plunge into a Q-and-A session for employees to speak about creating a new culture in city government.

But before he does, he ought to narrow his list of villains. He's got editorial boards alongside government bureaucrats as "box people."

Editorial boards may be knee-jerk in the minds of some readers, especially on political topics, but when it comes to what needs to be done in city government, this newspaper's editorial board has been speaking pretty much "outside the box."

If Mr. O'Malley reinvented city government tomorrow, he'd likely receive strong editorial backing.

Indeed, local editorials have been far more nontraditional in their approach toward Baltimore's problems than Mr. O'Malley.

Here's a test.

Who proposed the more drastic changes in city government: a) the mayor, or b) the editorial board?

Who opted for the traditional higher-taxes approach to balance the city's budget: a) the mayor, or b) the editorial board?

Who came out more strongly in support of the city police commissioner when he was under recent attack from City Council members for his sweeping personnel changes: a) the mayor, or b) the editorial board?

Who pushed for innovative, job- and residential-producing uses for the Memorial Stadium site: a) the mayor, or b) the editorial board?

If you answered correctly - b, a, b, b - you might conclude Martin O'Malley has a bit of the "box people" in him, too.

Yet the mayor and editorial board are often on the same page in championing dramatic approaches for Baltimore.

What may be confusing hizzoner is that he's been the focus of editorial criticism for not moving swiftly enough, for not taking on vested interests who always defend the status quo, for seeking incremental reforms when sweeping change is needed.

But that's the nature of an editorial board. One of its objectives is to try to put some backbone in elected leaders. That may strike leaders as criticism, but it comes with a positive objective.

The problem is that some thin-skinned politicians object to being told they're not always doing their job the right way.

Here's hoping the mayor doesn't get himself boxed in by seeing enemies when he's really surrounded by friends.

It's hard enough serving as mayor of a troubled, shrinking city when thugs are shooting up East Baltimore as though it were Dodge City.

Mayor O'Malley doesn't need to portray his allies as "box people." Instead, he ought to move forward with his city reforms, take criticism in stride and remember the good things that are being said about his efforts, too.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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