Dedication to Baltimore is measured in signatures

August 15, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

STANDING THERE in the midday sun outside City Hall, Rose Taylor took a deep breath and introduced herself to nobody in particular. She had 14 supporters surrounding her, and a banner that read "Community and Labor United for Maryland," and notes for a speech that seemed to tremble in her hand.

"My name is Rose Taylor," she said. Taylor glanced at the papers in her hand, and looked back up again. She talked about working people who have lost their jobs in the new economy. She talked about the former library in her neighborhood that doesn't open its doors anymore, and entire blocks of closed-up buildings.

And then she got to the specific thing that had brought everybody together on this hot afternoon in the heart of the city, the thing she called "the most important change in city government in a hundred years" - cutting the size of the Baltimore City Council.

It was a line waiting for applause, but there was no applause. Because, in the place where there was expected to be a crowd, there was nothing on an empty sidewalk but two daily newspaper reporters and an editor of a weekly paper. The editor was pinch-hitting as a photographer, but he had been handed somebody's camera at the last moment and didn't know how to use it, so he was getting instructions on his cell phone while Rose Taylor talked about this great change to come in the city of Baltimore.

Maybe.

Maybe it's a great change, and maybe it will happen, and maybe it won't matter much if it does happen. What's important at the moment, for all who have become cynics about the way we conduct government affairs, is the process itself, which might be semi-miraculous.

For here we had people who seemed to be treading their way to oblivion - a series of speakers, a familiar empty choreography - and nobody listening. And yet they stood there in an hour of triumph. Because, while almost nobody was paying attention, they had spent the last several months putting together more than 10,000 signatures to change the content of the City Council.

Democracy is funny. After Rose Taylor, Willie Ray, chairman of the local chapter of the civic group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) spoke, and then came Glen Middleton Sr., president of AFSCME Local 44 union. Behind them came state Sen. Ralph Hughes and Curt Anderson, the former state delegate running for a House seat again.

What they had to say was fine and uplifting, and nobody paid attention. The editor with the camera slipped away. Some of the people assembled behind the banner began drifting off and broke into conversations.

And yet, something seems to be happening here. For a century, we have a council composed of 18 members divided among six districts, and a council president elected at-large. And now, because of these signatures calling for a vote in November, we may wind up with 14 separate districts, each with a single council member.

(Or not. On Monday, in response to the petition, the council voted for two different configurations. Perhaps, they figured, if we can't beat the voters, at least we can confuse them.)

This drive to cut the council comes, first, from money. In a city with a diminishing population, and a narrow tax base, why should we spend as though we still had yesteryears' population and money?

But a second issue is a lack of respect. The truth is, the council has never exactly been mistaken for the British Parliament. Its real treasures were the workhorses who focused on constituents' problems, on neighborhood troubles: Mimi DiPietro and Dominic Leone, and Mary Pat Clarke and Carl Stokes. They were a mix of abilities and intellects, but they understood that their work involved getting an alley cleaned, or a school calmed, and not showboating for the TV cameras.

Who knows what most of these council members do today? Their constituents barely have a clue - and that's the problem. They're collecting $48,000 a year, in a city that gives all serious political power to its mayor, and many voters wonder why we're wasting so much money.

I'm not so sure it is waste. In a city of more than 600,000 people, and much community dysfunction, who says there's not enough legitimate work for 18 council people? In a city with a billion-dollar budget, who says cutting $192,000 from the payroll (plus the salaries of a handful of staffers) will solve something?

If we had evidence of real work being accomplished, the question might not ever arise. Instead, we have more than 10,000 people signing a petition to change the face of city government.

You wouldn't have known it by the scene outside City Hall the other day. It was just this lonely little group of 15 people who seemed to be speaking to nobody but themselves.

Don't believe everything you see. Their audience had already established itself. And that's a lesson to every politician: You think people aren't watching, but they are. You think they don't care. But sometimes they're passionate.

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