A hurtful time in Baltimore

Urban Chronicle

Christmas: A federal investigation, an indictment, layoffs and homicides have overshadowed the progress the city has made on other fronts.

December 25, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THIS YEAR, the Grinch stole Baltimore's Christmas.

Or maybe that should be Grinches, plural.

In any case, a series of events have conspired to cast a pall over the city this holiday season.

The past several weeks have brought a federal indictment of the city's former police commissioner on charges of misuse of funds; the cloud of a separate federal investigation into the finances and hiring practices of City Council members; the layoffs of hundreds in a school system financial meltdown; the death by cancer of one of Baltimore's most cherished leaders; and the snuffing out of the life of a federal prosecutor.

Oh, yes, and the number of homicides is up over last year.

The occurrences overshadow what has generally been a year of substantial progress for the city on a number of fronts.

The reopening of the Belvedere Square market had importance beyond its nearby neighborhoods; in a sense, it symbolized a renewed emphasis on community redevelopment.

The initial demolitions of decayed housing for the planned East Baltimore biotech park is a substantive sign that the project, the goal of which is to transform a large swath of the blighted east side, is indeed moving forward.

Similarly, the announcement that the city is finally moving to gain control of the so-called "super block" along Lexington Street is another key step in the west-side renaissance; the planned grand opening, in six weeks, of the renovated Hippodrome promises to be a citywide showpiece and to bring the story of the redevelopment to a metropolitan audience of theatergoers.

However controversial the process, the selection of a developer means that a new downtown hotel could actually be more than a pipe dream.

And the slowing of the city's population loss combined with the spurt in construction of new and renovated housing give rise to the possibility that the city may be able in the next year or two to reverse a half-century decline in the number of residents.

Still, it's hard to be sanguine about the city given what's happened recently.

The indictment of former Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris in the misuse of a police slush fund and the just-begun investigation of City Council members for hiring relatives and accepting gifts raise anew questions of judgment and oversight on the part of city leaders.

When allegations of misuse by Norris of a special police fund were first reported last year, Mayor Martin O'Malley quickly brushed them off as an example of bad accounting and said he was satisfied Norris didn't use the money inappropriately.

And the City Council, unable to carve out a meaningful role of executive oversight for itself, gave O'Malley and Norris a pass on the issue: There were no hearings held, no threats to withhold funds until answers were given.

O'Malley returned the favor by defending the City Council members who hired their relatives, saying it was part of a long-standing city "tradition."

Under the duress of the federal investigation and an ethics board ruling, a couple of council members finally announced they would dismiss their relatives from the payroll. But none seemed to recognize the fundamental issues of public mistrust raised by nepotism and the acceptance of gifts, however trivial, from those doing business with the city.

In terms of engendering loss of confidence in city institutions, the school system's fiscal crisis is, if anything, even more disquieting.

This was exactly the kind of debacle the city-state school reform partnership was supposed to prevent -- and didn't. Clearly, the school board wasn't watching the system, and the mayor and governor weren't watching the school board.

Better-managed, and higher- achieving, schools are essential to those who have no alternative to public education; they are also a key to retaining what's left of the city's middle-class -- and keeping those singles and young couples beginning to repopulate the city when they become parents.

Just how much one of the architects of that reform, state Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, will be missed may not be fully felt until the General Assembly session that begins next month.

But already the deep sense of loss of this powerful and principled legislator, who died Nov. 14, has been compounded by outrage over revelations that Morgan State University had compiled a secret dossier to be used in the school's legislative battles with him.

Whatever the circumstances of the death of federal prosecutor Jonathan Luna turn out to be, there is no question his slaying has shone an unwelcome national spotlight on the city.

As for the city's 250-plus homicides, Baltimore has again failed to come close to the mayor's stated goal of cutting the number of homicides to 175.

That number is threatening to become a numerical albatross -- in much the same way former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's slogan "The City That Reads," coined at a time of woeful school performance, became a verbal one.

Happy holiday?

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