The city's No. 2

November 24, 2006

The City Charter, Baltimore's defining government document, says relatively little about the role of the president of the City Council, beyond the basics: Preside over the legislative body, "vote on all questions and perform such other duties as may be prescribed by law." It invests the power of government in the mayor. And for that reason, the president of the City Council needs to be a strong, independent voice who will serve as a check on the mayor's power.

The gubernatorial election of Mayor Martin O'Malley will prompt Council President Sheila Dixon's move into the mayor's office. It's up to the council members to replace her. They should choose a steady, proven leader to succeed Ms. Dixon. The person should be outspoken, but not confrontational; a decision-maker who understands the workings of government; a facilitator who recognizes the importance of keeping the city on the move.

During her years as council president, Ms. Dixon has been an ally of the mayor. She characterizes their relationship as partners in progress, which hasn't prevented her from speaking her mind. In years past, there have been council presidents who functioned as mayoral loyalists, such as the late Frank X. Gallagher, who served under Mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns. When Mr. Burns was council president, he was a "don't rock the boat" crew member who got what he wanted by negotiating behind closed doors with the skipper, Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Council President Walter S. Orlinsky was a self-styled maverick in public who enjoyed being a player in private. When she served as council president, Mary Pat Clarke considered the citizens of Baltimore to be her first responsibility, and challenged Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on their behalf.

This time around, as city council members weigh their choice for president, they need to consider the larger political landscape.

The next 10 months will be a prelude to the 2007 municipal elections. The potential for shakeups in the city's political leadership is as great as it was in 1999, when Mr. O'Malley bested two council veterans to win the mayor's office. Several council members and Comptroller Joan Pratt have been mentioned as potential mayoral candidates. Others are exploring runs for the two other city-wide offices. As one domino falls, so will others.

Over the next 10 months, Ms. Dixon will likely be preparing her run for election as mayor in her own right. The council president, as chair of the powerful Board of Estimates, could assist or frustrate her plans.

But a go-long-to-get-along council president isn't what the city needs.

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