Dixon poised to lead with plans on crime, trash

City's incoming mayor wants better department cooperation

January 16, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

From her seat on Baltimore's City Council, Sheila Dixon has watched others run City Hall for nearly two decades. Starting this week, it's her turn.

Dixon, who begins serving the remainder of Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley's term tomorrow, vows that her administration's approach to government won't be a radical break from the past. But she'll bring a bevy of new ideas to the office, including better trash pickup, a more holistic approach to crime and a renewed emphasis on neighborhoods beyond the Inner Harbor.

Just how much of her agenda she can accomplish in the next year, when virtually everyone at City Hall is a candidate for something, could say much about the direction that post-O'Malley Baltimore will take on issues such as crime and education.

Dixon's progress will also help voters decide whether she deserves a full, four-year term. All city officials, including Dixon, are up for election in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, the race that counts in a city where Republicans make up just 10 percent of the electorate.

"Cleaner, greener, effective, efficient, transparent government, working in partnership with the community and enhancing many of the initiatives that we've been working on," Dixon said when asked recently to define her broad goals for the city. "I'm driven by finding a solution to the problem and not accepting excuses."

Dixon, 53, has offered few specifics about what she hopes to accomplish during the term, which ends in December unless she is re-elected. As soon as this week, though, she is expected to release a report crafted by her 47-member transition committee that will contain plans for fighting crime and improving schools and blighted neighborhoods.

Broad themes have emerged, including that she expects city departments, including trash collectors and police, to work together more closely. She has indicated that more development money will be directed to frequently overlooked neighborhoods - Park Heights, for instance - and that building below-market-value homes for low- and middle-income residents will be a priority.

Dixon's greatest challenge, though, will be navigating the supercharged political atmosphere of the next several months, with a large field of candidates already gunning for her job before she's had a chance to settle in. Missteps - and problems outside her control - will be magnified by those opponents. On the other hand, Dixon will have the power of incumbency and the ability to take credit for progress -even if sometimes that progress is not directly of her doing.

"Her opponents have done what I did, which is to announce before she becomes mayor, meaning that in the public's mind she's not just a mayor, she's a candidate," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who beat Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns in 1987, and served three terms before O'Malley succeeded him in 1999. "She's got some great advantages, if used properly, because she will be able to demonstrate executive leadership over the next few months."

Burns, like Dixon, was a City Council president who took over as mayor when then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer was elected governor.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Del. Jill P. Carter, former high school principal Andrey Bundley and Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. have said they will run for mayor. Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and several others have expressed interest.

For months, Dixon has lived under the cloud of an ethics scandal involving city contracts that were awarded to a company that employed her sister. Last week, the city's Board of Ethics said it would not pursue an investigation into Dixon's involvement in those contracts. A city grand jury indicted the owner of the company, Mildred E. Boyer, in December, but prosecutors have not said whether the investigation is continuing.

If more people are indicted in the case, or if Boyer is tried this year, it could be a significant distraction for the new mayor. But Dixon is pushing ahead, building an administration, she said, on the foundation set by O'Malley. Many of her key aides - including her chief of staff, police commissioner and deputy mayor for economic development - have come from O'Malley's team. Dixon will also continue CitiStat, an O'Malley program that uses data to measure how well city departments are performing.

She has said that implementing the city's recently approved comprehensive master plan will be a key part of her administration. The document, crafted by O'Malley's planning department, sets goals for creating affordable housing, making the city more pedestrian-friendly and increasing job training programs. The plan ultimately will lead to a citywide rezoning.

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