Linking the mayor to neighborhoods

Liaisons: The recently created Office of Neighborhoods serves as Mayor Martin O'Malley's eyes and ears on the streets of Baltimore.

February 05, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley stood in the CitiStat room in City Hall, lobbing questions at six neighborhood liaisons recently enlisted to act as his eyes and ears on Baltimore's residential streets.

At the evening drill late last month, O'Malley heard from a gathering of about 100 community leaders about a litany of problems: Leakin Park on the west side was looking worse; the 2500 block of McHenry St. was pitch dark at night because of broken street lamps; tennis shoes were left hanging over telephone lines.

"Band-Aids and singing `Kumbaya' are not doing the trick," O'Malley said. He turned for answers to his neighborhood staff, put in a spot often reserved for the police or public works officials.

For the first time, the team led by Israel "Izzy" C. Patoka, director of the mayor's Office of Neighborhoods, was geared up for a public introduction and experienced a rigorous O'Malley-style inquiry.

Interviews indicate that early reviews from grass-roots leaders are upbeat.

The team introduced at the meeting included: Valerie J. Carpenter, assigned to Northeast; Jennifer J. Mielke, assigned to Northwest and West; Nan Rohrer, assigned to Southeast; Davon Barbour, assigned to East Baltimore; Jose Ruiz, liaison to the Hispanic community; and Richard Burton, the citywide community coordinator, who set up the jazz band and balloons in the rotunda.

Patoka and the others responded to queries, promising to follow up one grievance and describing another situation as "a work in progress."

As a mayor's initiative with an annual budget of $727,000, the office has triggered skepticism among City Council members, who felt their roles might be usurped. In a largely symbolic move, the council voted last year to withhold half of the new office's operating budget until it could observe the difference the operation made.

For now, neighborhood leaders say, they are receiving more direct attention to issues that affect everyday life, especially sanitation, abandoned vehicles and clearing green or playing space.

"We thought we were forgotten until Jennifer came along," said Jackie Brown of Poppleton in Southwest Baltimore, nodding to Mielke, 29.

"It's surprising, in a good way, the number of neighborhood organizations that are out there," Mielke said in an interview, reflecting on her work from Park Heights to Sandtown-Winchester. "It shows how committed they are."

The idea, Deputy Mayor Laurie B. Schwartz said, was "a little O'Malley army that branches out as a helping hand to neighborhoods." Four of the six liaisons are longtime Baltimore residents. Two moved from other cities, including Mielke, who was a neighborhood planner in South Bend, Ind.

After spending his first year in office concentrating on crime and grime, O'Malley began the neighborhood outreach last year among the city's 764 community organizations.

The older model of neighborhood service centers was not working, Schwartz said. "It required people to come in. Here, we're going out to them, to their [neighborhood] meetings, and they [the liaisons] are out every day."

The City Council budget restriction led to another public grilling last week, when Patoka faced a full council committee hearing.

After hearing Patoka's presentation, 4th District Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh said, "I'm pretty satisfied. ... They are helping to resolve issues, and we need to hear that in a tight budget climate when we look at every line item."

If the council approves the rest of the budget, which is considered likely, Patoka plans to hire two more community liaisons this year, including one who could act as ambassador to the city's scores of Korean merchants.

Aides to O'Malley say the new office is meeting his expectations. "That place is jumping," said the mayor's spokesman, Tony White.

Ruiz, 51, who had a similar role under Mayor William Donald Schaefer, is the only veteran of past mayoral administrations among the six liaisons. Assigned to cover the Latino community, which the 2000 census put at 11,000 but Ruiz says is closer to 25,000, he has set up shop at 3411 Bank St. in East Baltimore. There, he can "spend 90 percent of my time walking the streets and talking about trash, zoning, permits, business loans. I'm a jack of all trades."

In his office, he recited numbers from a chart showing that his staff attended 430 community meetings in less than a year, then added, "This is the most talented team in city government."

Burton, overall troubleshooter and event producer with deep roots in the city, recorded a compact disc, Ballamore, to be released this summer by MCA Records. He also is host of Eye on Baltimore, a cable TV show.

"When the mayor says something, I try to make it happen in no later than two days," he said. "I hate to go to meetings to talk about when we'll meet again." He has coordinated the Super Spring Sweep Thing cleanup, the mayor's regular Open Dialogue community forums and a recent cleanup of a Pimlico playground, he said.

Rohrer, 27, a Yale graduate and Lancaster, Pa., native, moved to Baltimore from Kennesaw, Ga., near Atlanta, where she worked in downtown development. She settled in Canton.

"I bought a little rowhouse, and I'm desperately trying to fix it up," she said.

She said she has found "a sense of community in a city I can call my own."

Carpenter, 44, who worked previously for Greater Homewood Community Corp., said she went to an Open Dialogue forum when she heard that the Office of Neighborhoods was taking shape.

"I handed O'Malley my resume and met Izzy that night," she said. "I felt O'Malley was serious, and I'm a believer in accountability."

Barbour, the youngest liaison at age 24, said East Baltimore blight has caused his neighborhood groups to feel marginalized. "I'm trying to build up trust," he said.

A graduate of Baltimore School for the Arts and Goucher College, he is a member of a West African dance company.

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