Baltimore has made strides during the O'Malley years


January 11, 2007|By ERIC SIEGEL

Seven years and some six weeks ago, Martin O'Malley became mayor of Baltimore, at 36 one of the youngest chief executives in the city's history.

Next week, he leaves City Hall to become Maryland's 61st governor, one day shy of his 44th birthday, only the fifth man since Colonial times to hold the top offices in the city and the state.

Yesterday, O'Malley attended his final meeting of the Board of Estimates, the city's spending and contracting board.

It was an occasion that began with the gift of a cake and some neckties from City Council President Sheila Dixon, who will fill out the remaining 11 months of O'Malley's mayoral term, and ended with a warm round of applause from the packed second-floor hearing room festooned with portraits of past city leaders.

Fittingly, the meeting also included the consideration of some important business. The most important was the approval of the sale to a group of out-of-town developers of the Superblock, the linchpin of the west-side revitalization effort that was conceived by O'Malley's predecessor but pushed ahead, albeit in fits and starts, by his administration.

Just as fittingly, the meeting also included some poignancy and contentiousness. The poignancy came in a statement read by the daughter of a Korean-American merchant whose business is being seized, over her objections, to make way for a development that is said to include apartments, offices and a parking garage. The contentiousness came courtesy of Comptroller Joan Pratt, who relentlessly questioned city economic development officials on how much of the $21 million sale price the city was likely to see after expenses for demolition, relocation and street improvements.

O'Malley stayed largely silent until the end of the meeting, when he acknowledged the value of give-and-take and the "thorny questions" of balancing common good and individual rights.

Then, referring to the portraits of his predecessors, he said: "Every time I came in here, I looked at all these mostly departed colleagues in government and these eyes kind of looking at us from the past, telling us to continue on."

"It's really been a great honor, and all of you should be proud of your city," he added. "We're moving ahead and we're making progress and that's what we've always done."

Indeed, O'Malley is leaving office with the city in better shape than when he came in.

Never considered a serious contender for mayor until he decided to get into the race in 1999 just days before the filing deadline, he exhibited a soberness of purpose in office that contrasted with his image as the leader of an Irish rock band.

Compared with his two immediate elected predecessors - William Donald Schaefer, who served 15 years, and Kurt Schmoke, who served 12 - O'Malley's tenure was short. And while not exactly sweet, it was certainly substantive.

To be sure, any assessment of O'Malley's tenure must acknowledge that there remain too many homicides (more than one a day so far this year) and too many questions about police practices; too many poorly performing schools and too many school leaders tone-deaf to the public perception of their actions; too many neighborhoods that failed to be lifted by the rising tide of property values.

And some questions remain unanswered - for example, whether the publicly financed convention center hotel O'Malley pushed through will burnish the city's convention business or burden the city.

Still, by almost any objective measure, the city has improved under O'Malley's watch in a number of key areas, from homicides to health to housing prices - sometimes marginally, sometimes markedly. (See graphic). And where it has not improved in absolute terms, such as population growth, the rate of decline has slowed.

His legacy includes CitiStat and the 311 call center, Project 5000 for systematically taking control of vacant properties, and the notion of building on strength in community development.

He also demonstrated that small targeted investments, in facilities that include playgrounds and supermarkets, can pay big dividends.

And he pushed big-ticket redevelopment projects, such as the East Baltimore biotech park and the west-side initiative that dominated yesterday's Board of Estimates meeting.

There was a hint yesterday of a key issue facing the city post-O'Malley when someone asked, at a pre-meeting of a small group of elected officials, whether the 400 apartments planned for the Superblock include any affordable units. (They don't - not yet, anyway).

There also was a hint of continuing expectations that O'Malley will help the city as governor.

"I'll be coming to Annapolis to ask for school construction money," Dixon said.

The last word at his last meeting was O'Malley's, who mentioned the portraits of Samuel Smith, mayor in the 1800s, and Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. and his son, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III.

"I look forward to joining these walls but also continuing in this progress," the mayor said. "And when I'm gone, hang me with young Tommy."

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