Madame Mayor

Our view: Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake faces a stack of immediate challenges now that she's in office

she'll need to act quickly and decisively to restore confidence

February 07, 2010

Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake isn't getting much time to settle into her new job. Immediately after being sworn in, she was confronted with the biggest crisis a mayor can face: snow. With snowfall ranging upward of 2 feet this weekend, Baltimoreans didn't have to wait long to start cast judgments on their new leader's management.

But it's just as well that Mother Nature isn't affording Mayor Rawlings-Blake the luxury of a slow start, because the issues facing the city won't either. In addition to the city's persistent problems, Mayor Rawlings-Blake faces a budget crisis and, following her predecessor's resignation, a crisis of confidence in City Hall. She has no time to lose.

Budget Baltimore expects a shortfall of $130 million or more in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and Mayor Rawlings-Blake has mere weeks to craft a plan to close that gap. So far, she has demonstrated a sound approach to the problem. She will prioritize key functions, such as fire and police protection, and look for things the city can do without. Every program has a constituency, as Mayor Rawlings-Blake and her former colleagues on the City Council demonstrated last year when they balked at proposed cuts to rec centers, but as mayor she needs to make hard choices. New revenues should be approached cautiously, and it is heartening that Mayor Rawlings-Blake has indicated that she opposes a general property tax increase.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake also needs to push for an end to a variable pension benefit plan in the police and fire pension system and take other steps, such as increasing the retirement age.

Restoring trust Mayor Rawlings-Blake has made a good start on this front by proposing changes to the ethics board that would make it more independent of the mayor. Her bill could be strengthened to make the board even more independent, but it is a major improvement for a body that failed to find any fault with former Mayor Sheila Dixon's conduct.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has already signaled objections to Councilwoman Belinda Conaway's proposal to shrink the Board of Estimates so that the mayor does not control a majority of the seats. But if the board is a rubber stamp for the mayor, it serves little purpose. Mayor Rawlings-Blake should consider backing reforms to make the body more akin to the Board of Public Works on the state level, which provides appropriate review of spending practices without producing gridlock.

Of immediate concern are decisions about which officials from the Dixon administration Mayor Rawlings-Blake should keep and which she should replace. For all of Ms. Dixon's ethical shortcomings, she assembled a staff that, for the most part, did an admirable job running the city. So far, Mayor Rawlings-Blake appears to be taking a sensibly moderate approach in which service for her predecessor is neither a guarantee of a job nor a disqualification, as evidenced by her decision to keep on deputy mayors Christopher Thomaskutty and Andrew B. Frank.

Keeping basic city services running is extremely important, and Mr. Thomaskutty in particular helps bring continuity to that task. And keeping Mr. Frank was a wise decision given his role in negotiating the city's agreement with the failed bidders for Baltimore's slot-machine gambling license. Mayor Rawlings-Blake has said jump-starting a new bidding process is a top priority, and Mr. Frank's expertise will be crucial.

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