Vacuum at the top

August 07, 2002

WHAT'S HAPPENING to Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan to take control of 5,000 derelict houses by 2004?

Most of the target properties have been identified, and a year-long acquisition process is getting started. But this optimistic timetable could be in jeopardy. Denise M. Duval, the city's top housing code enforcer who oversaw the project, resigned recently. Now Michael Braverman, who was an acting deputy housing commissioner during Ms. Duval's three-month maternity leave, is on a two-month paternity leave. As a consequence, a vacuum has developed at the top of the agency's code enforcement sections.

This void illustrates how thin the capable leadership layer is. And that's true not only in the housing department but in many other city agencies. One or two people should not be indispensable, but often they are. Even top city officials have acknowledged that this is a serious problem.

It didn't use to be like this. In the 1970s, while William Donald Schaefer was mayor, bright and eager young professionals fairly overran the housing and planning departments, knowing they would be listened to and given big assignments. This is not the case today; imaginative and dedicated doers are far more difficult to find at the salaries the city can afford to pay.

With their background as activist lawyers, Ms. Duval and Mr. Braverman were the chief implementers of the vacant house initiative, announced by Mayor O'Malley in January. The idea is to acquire entire blocks, some of which would be cleared and offered to private companies for residential and commercial redevelopment. It's one of the most ambitious attempts in recent years to attack blight in a city that has roughly 40,000 vacant houses.

The housing agency has moved quickly to hire Michael Bainum from the Community Law Center to take charge of Project 5000. He will coordinate volunteer lawyers as well as paid attorneys in handling thickets of complicated acquisition issues.

But that does not take care of the larger executive vacuum: As a deputy commissioner, Ms. Duval gave the city's lagging inspection and code enforcement sections some badly needed teeth. She tripled the legal staff and pushed for dedicated housing courts. She established performance standards for housing inspectors, increasing their productivity by 300 percent. Who will continue in that tradition?

Mayor O'Malley's CitiStat performance review system has repeatedly identified inadequate leadership as one of the most persistent problems hampering the municipal government's effectiveness. The city must do a better job in identifying and developing talent. Otherwise the housing enforcement section's power vacuum may well be repeated in other city agencies.

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