Monday, December 12, 2016

Leadership and Vision: The City Council

It This is part 2 of the question what is the vision for Baltimore? This article addresses the City Council's role.

The incoming class of eight new council members has been eagerly awaited. Finally a City Council that wouldn't be a rubber stamp, a Council that would be more progressive and do what needs to be done. The new members are Zeke Cohen in the 1st District, Ryan Dorsey in the 3rd District, Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer in the 5th District, Leon F. Pinkett III in the 7th District, Kristerfer Burnett in the 8th District, John T. Bullock in the 9th District, Robert Stokes Sr. in the 12th District and Shannon Sneed in the 13th District.

As someone who has served for ten years in a local councilman's role in Germany, I have great respect for council work and believe that, indeed, all politics is local. But I also know about the dullness of some of the work, the theatrics that the dullness sometimes evokes and a desire to solve all the world's problems on the smallest possible level, the one of the council district. In a time when State and federal governments seem to conspire in turning the clock back and overturning progressive urban policies, it is easy to see why local government could either become defensive or cocky. Trying to create a bulwark against a hostile outer world.
Robert Stokes

Now with the new members sworn in and the new Mayor in office, a real assessment must take place: what should and could the council do? 

There are two immediate warnings against overblown expectations. The one is institutional and has to do with the City Charter and the distribution of power. David Troy who runs the very informative Baltimore Voters Facebook page described the power (or lack thereof) this way:
The Baltimore City Council can approve (or not) the budget, as put forth by the Mayor. Its second major power is its ability to direct public and Mayoral attention to specific matters; either with hearings or with resolutions. Resolutions, however, must withstand (or override) Mayoral veto. Baltimore is very much run by the Mayor, with the Legislative branch acting more or less in a support role. (David Troy)
The other and possibly bigger issue is self-made and has to do with a discrepancy what constituents  expect from their representative and what they take on, instead. This discrepancy is exemplified by the first actions coming from the class of millennial council members: The resolution to rename Columbus Day came from Brandon Scott, who has been a member of the Council since 2011 but as the youngest is often lumped in with the new millenials just now coming in. The other notable action: Ryan Dorsey's resolution to condemn the President Elect for his campaign rhetoric.  Neither issue was likely a high priority for voters. 
New Council member Shannon Sneed 

Those type symbolic actions are common in local politics and happen across the country.  Not that the underlying sentiment in either of these two resolutions would be wrong,  but they both have no tangible outcomes other than making those who sponsored the bills or supported them feel good for a day.

One can hope that after the initial theatrics the Mayor and the Council will collaborate for the best ideas on how to use the municipal budget and its discretionary spending in the most effective way so that the largest number of residents is gets the best services the City can provide. Good services, not a lofty aspiration but a common expectation. Even though good services means a lot of different things to different people. 

Or as the new Council member Zeke Cohen stated in his November 5 a Facebook post:
"Despite our physical proximity, our lived experiences create a chasm of misunderstanding.
It is hard to explain to residents living in a high rise in Harbor East, why people in O’Donnell Heights might fear the police. It is tough to tell a former Bethlehem Steel employee from Eastwood whose quality of life went away with our industry, that we need to invest more in West Baltimore. Or, try explaining to someone who was poisoned by lead paint in Perkins Homes, that we need to provide assistance to unaccompanied minors that came here from Central America.
This is the existential challenge facing Baltimore. In order to heal, we need to listen. Our struggles are interconnected.
I love our city. I am convinced that Baltimore is the birthplace of the great American comeback story."
Ryan Dorsey
In my previous article about vision, narrative and leadership I suggested that Baltimore needs a "narrative" that residents and those who would want to come to Baltimore would understand and support. A narrative that would give a higher purpose than the simple goal of good services. 

To become the great post-industrial come-back city that Cohen mentions we would have to knock some places that have already made great strides in this, out of there leading positions. Such as Pittsburgh (do I dare to utter the name of that city?), Chattanooga or Cleveland. But it is hard to develop a narrative that is 100 percent original even though our own approach needs to nothing but that.
Kristerfer Burnett

Baltimore has the right DNA to continue its come-back in a more coordinated and focused manner. Bring a thousand fragments of good and laudable actions and programs into sync until they add up to that great come-back that this city deserves. 

For that to happen Council and Mayor need to collaborate with each other and with the region. Feel good tactics of delineation and finger-pointing won't do it. Mayor Pugh is mature enough to understand that. Nor will bills and resolutions that address everybody else but not the City and its own departments.

Yes it would be good to have higher minimum wages, less sugary drinks, no plastic bags and no big box retail within the city limits. But all these bills suffer from looking for others to provide the heavy lifting and do better. Merchants, employers or the consumer in general. Aside from that these matters would be better resolved on the State or Federal level, they should come after the City has brought its own house in order. For example have a broader and better fiscal base, use the budget for the homeless more effectively, manage the public housing stock so tenants can live decently and without abuse, manage the public spaces, be it parks or streets so that citizens can enjoy them, get schools into shape (I am mostly talking about the buildings since the education isn't really in the Council's purview) and generally have efficiently rendered services and a well treated and well managed municipal work-force.

I am certainly not saying that all those areas are a mess today. Quite to the contrary, the City has made great strides in fixing schools, infrastructure, parks and streets and clean up the streets.  Many innovative strategies and measures have been taken, for example, in the health department. Even public works has had successes such as single stream recycling, hard trash cans provided by DPW and the action "orange cone" of repaving roads. Transportation has the Circulator and bike share.  Even Housing with vacants to value has had some success. But the outcomes are simply not good enough.
John Bullock

Clearly, it is easy to blog and hard to govern. No doubt, many people are working hard to make a difference every day.  Yet, in many cases the left hand still doesn't know what the right hand does, at times even within the same department, let alone across departments. In spite of best intentions, most departments are still in a reactive and not a pro-active mode. They are working on the cure and not on the prevention and therefore spend a lot more resources than necessary. Baltimore's infrastructure is a good example, so is policing.

It is on those areas where the new council should place its focus. As part of the checks and balances to the adminstration, in compliance with the City charter, and in a collaborative spirit the Council has an important role to play. I am extremely optimistic that there is a great opportunity ahead in the long story of Baltimore moving three steps forward and two steps back.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

see also:

DMVDaily
The Washington Post about their relation between Council and Mayor
Cohen press conference on student busing. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=874931693125&id=41400368

Below the Committees, their chairs and their members (from DMVDaily)

BUDGET AND APPROPRIATIONS
Eric Costello – Chair
Leon Pinkett – Vice Chair
Bill Henry
Sharon Green Middleton
Brandon M. Scott
Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer
Shannon Sneed
Staff: Marguerite Murray

LABOR
Shannon Sneed - Chair
Robert Stokes – Vice Chair
Eric Costello
Bill Henry
Mary Pat Clarke
Staff: Marguerite Murray

EDUCATION AND YOUTH
Zeke Cohen – Chair
Mary Pat Clarke – Vice Chair
John Bullock
Kristerfer Burnett
Ryan Dorsey
Staff: D'Paul Nibber

LAND USE AND TRANSPORTATION
Edward Reisinger - Chair
Sharon Green Middleton – Vice Chair
Mary Pat Clarke
Eric Costello
Ryan Dorsey
Leon Pinkett
​Robert Stokes
Staff: Marshall Bell

EXECUTIVE APPOINTMENTS
Robert Stokes – Chair
Kristerfer Burnett – Vice Chair
Mary Pat Clarke
Zeke Cohen
Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer
Staff: Jennifer Coates

PUBLIC SAFETY
Brandon Scott - Chair
Ryan Dorsey – Vice Chair
Kristerfer Burnett
Shannon Sneed
Zeke Cohen
Leon Pinkett
Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer
Staff: Marshall Bell

HOUSING AND URBAN AFFAIRS
John Bullock - Chair
Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer – Vice Chair
Kristerfer Burnett
Bill Henry
Shannon Sneed
Zeke Cohen
Ryan Dorsey
Staff: Richard Krummerich

TAXATION, FINANCE AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Sharon Green Middleton – Chair
Leon Pinkett – Vice Chair
Eric Costello
Ed Reisinger
Robert Stokes
Staff: Jennifer Coates
Larry Greene (pension only)

JUDICIARY AND LEGISLATIVE INVESTIGATIONS
Eric Costello – Chair
Mary Pat Clarke – Vice Chair
John Bullock
Leon Pinkett
Ed Reisinger
Brandon Scott
Robert Stokes
Staff: D'Paul Nibber