City Council elects leadership

Members of political families, Rawlings Blake and Curran chosen in a political year

January 23, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

The Baltimore City Council elected Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake as president and Robert W. Curran as vice president yesterday, in the last of the domino moves in local government resulting from Martin O'Malley's ascension to the governor's office.

Both choices had been expected and were approved unanimously, ushering in an 11-month term in which Rawlings Blake and Mayor Sheila Dixon will attempt to advance their agenda amid an increasingly political atmosphere at City Hall.

"It will be a difficult year for us, and it will be harder still to ignore the fact that this is a very political year," said Rawlings Blake, 36. "But we have an obligation to ensure that our daily focus is not on politics but on the well-being and the needs of the people of Baltimore."

Several council members are expected to run for mayor or council president in the September primary election. Dixon, formerly the council president, is serving out the remainder of O'Malley's mayoral term and Rawlings Blake was elected to fill the vacancy left by Dixon's move to that office.

The daughter of the late Howard P. Rawlings, a longtime state delegate and legislative leader, Rawlings Blake has served as the council's vice president for seven years. In her new position, she will not only lead the City Council but chair the powerful Board of Estimates, which approves city spending.

After voting to make Rawlings Blake president, the council recessed its first meeting of the year and the members walked across City Hall to the mayor's office for her swearing-in ceremony. With her mother, husband and daughter by her side, Rawlings Blake took the oath of office, which was administered by Dixon. The council reconvened and unanimously elected Curran as vice president.

Curran, 56, a council member since 1995, represents Northeast Baltimore's 3rd District.

"My office is open to you and my colleagues," Dixon told the council members, noting that Rawlings Blake's ascent would place women in charge of the city's three most powerful elected positions, as mayor, council president and comptroller, a job held by Joan M. Pratt. "When you walk into City Hall ... you will see three women's pictures at the front door. This is a historic day."

Despite talk of communication, there was dissension almost immediately after the ceremonies as the council dealt a symbolic blow to the Dixon administration over a bill involving city police and firefighter pensions.

Dixon's administration had requested that the council withdraw the measure, which alters the terms by which uniformed employees may delay their retirement benefits. Several council members questioned why the bill was being pulled and seven - a majority, because two seats sat empty yesterday - voted to send the measure back to committee rather than kill it.

"There's a very ambivalent feeling out there amongst our [firefighters] and police about this withdrawal," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said.

A Dixon spokesman declined to comment on the vote.

In other action, the City Council delayed voting on a controversial bill to double the number of video poker games in local bars and restaurants and decided to send the measure back to committee.

The council unanimously approved a ban on selling gas- or air-pellet guns and paint ball guns to minors and prohibited their use except on private property or at a recreational "paintball facility." The council unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution that calls on the General Assembly to outlaw ground rents.

A series of articles in The Sun showed how residents lose their homes through a process called "ejectment" when they neglect to pay ground rents, a centuries-old system of charging a fee on the lot under a building. Several members of the General Assembly have already vowed to take up the issue in this current legislative session.

"The ejectment of people is ridiculous," said Councilwoman Agnes Welch, who introduced the measure. "This is a dangerous way for people who own property to lose it."

Because Rawlings Blake is now council president - a citywide position - a vacancy exists for her seat representing the 6th District in Northwest Baltimore. Rawlings Blake said residents interested in filling the vacancy may submit applications by Feb. 13 and that a committee assigned to review them will hold a public meeting the next day.

Curran, like Rawlings Blake, comes from well-established political family. His brother is J. Joseph Curran Jr., who recently retired as the state's longest-serving attorney general, and his late father was a council member. He is also the uncle of Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, the new governor's wife.

"You learn from your family," Curran said. "And I've learned from my family over the years."

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