A leader for the City Council

September 02, 2007

The Baltimore City Council president has to be a den mother and a watchdog at the same time. There's the care and feeding of 14 sometimes wayward members of the council, and then there's the job of running the weekly meeting of the Board of Estimates, where the city's spending decisions are made and where the mayor has the votes - but the council president has the chair and the megaphone that goes with it.

It takes different skills to manage these tasks, and not a few former council presidents found it to be a sometimes frustrating experience. Some have been gadflies; some have been go-along get-along types. Neither variety is what the city needs right now. Rather, the ideal council president will bring:

A sharp eye to the important checks-and-balances role.

Insight into the whirl of issues confronting Baltimore, plus those just around the corner.

The wisdom to be both an effective guide of the legislative process and a partner to the mayor - when partnership is appropriate.

We believe that Michael Sarbanes is the favorite on the first two points, and we have confidence that he can master the third.

His principal opponent in the Democratic primary, incumbent Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, is well-liked by many of the current members, and it's easy to see why, given the unruffled way she has run the council this year. She and Mayor Sheila Dixon have endorsed each other. In the eight months since she took on the job, she has been more visible and active than she was in the preceding 12 years as a regular member, which is to her credit.

But her chief role, before this year, was as floor manager of Mayor Martin O'Malley's legislative package. She is an insider, and not an ineffective one - but, especially with a City Hall veteran as mayor, an infusion of fresh and independent thinking in this important office would bring a positive dose of creative tension to city government.

Another candidate, Kenneth N. Harris Sr., is a City Council member with an independent streak, and he displays an admirable passion and energy. He takes some credit for pushing the revitalization of two shopping centers in his district - Loch Raven and Belvedere Square - and pays particular attention to truancy and other children's issues.

But one advantage Mr. Sarbanes has is that, as current director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, he knows the whole city well. He is brimming with ideas. Of course he is helped in this race by having a distinguished Maryland politician as a father, but the same goes for Ms. Rawlings-Blake. (That's former U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, for anyone who's new to town.)

We like his idea of enlisting churches to sponsor parishioners in rehabbed houses; we like his understanding of the value of commercial development and growth, and of the possibilities that beckon; we like his urgent sense that Baltimoreans "are trapped by a set of expectations that's well below what we're capable of."

Mr. Sarbanes would shake things up, and he'd also try to keep a few feet to the fire. That can be a tricky job to pull off successfully in a strong-mayor system such as Baltimore's - but we suspect it's what the city needs at this significant crossroads in its history.

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