Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mayor Pugh's agenda

Last Friday the Mayor held a press conference on the occasion of receiving a 68-page transition report from 10 topic teams who had labored over their report elements since before Christmas. As always, the folks on the subcommittees hoped that their product won't "sit on a shelf and gather dust"; but exactly that is what usually happens with transition papers.

Some of those reports become precedents for others. Members of Pugh's transition team were to look at Philadelphia's transition report, Oakland's transportation report as good examples. Mayor Pugh likes to look at best practices elsewhere and learn from other cities and has the Bloomberg Philanthropies people help her do that. The group recently awarded Baltimore a three year $1.5 million grant to implement innovation.

That Pugh doesn't let transition reports be just paper weights became already apparent while the reports were still being compiled. In one instance, she herself had brought Janette Sadik Khan from Bloomberg Associates to Baltimore to report to the transportation team about complete streets and the tactical urbanism that Sadik Khan had employed as Transportation Commissioner in NYC, most famously at Times Square. Pugh sat in the room, and literally turned the table by telling them from the front of the room what she expected.  At the press conference the Mayor talked about the key recommendations of the report as if they were her own government agenda all along, while the team leaders stood behind her more like decoration, In her remarks Pugh was dusting off O'Malley's slogan of making Baltimore the "the greatest city in America".
Mayor Pugh speaking about the recommendations of the Transition Report

The previous Mayor had installed an online transition tracker that can still be accessed and shows a few items as completed and many others "in progress". Mayor Pugh installed an online portal for citizen ideas, there is no word on updating the "tracker". Whatever ideas anybody submitted so far, they aren't visible online, nor is there any collation or summary or even a count of how many ideas were received in what area. If crowd-sourcing is intended as an innovation, the website needs a lot of help. Meanwhile, Housing, BDC and Transportation emerge as key areas for recommendations. The "jobs available" tab still lists the directors for Housing, Transportation and Parks as open, the application deadlines were originally provided as January 20 and then extended to February 17. After the previous Commissioner Graziano resigned under considerable pressure by Pugh, there only an acting Commissioner, but the still combined agency is in pretty good hands with Michael Braverman. Pugh told the BBJ that she is close to naming a new housing commissioner and that there are three finalists whom she will interview over the next few weeks. She expects to make a final decision in the next 30 to 45 days.

The press conference wasn't exactly mobbed but the relevant local media aren't all that numerous either. Only the BBJ did an actual article with what the take-aways of the report  are. Ken Burns reported on WYPR, now admitted again to the Mayor's circle after SRB banned him briefly for what appeared to be entirely bogus reasons. Burns pointed out that "there has been no transportation director since William Johnson left at the end of April 2016. The department has been under an interim leader since that time." Pugh  emphasized the collaboration between the state, feds and local government in her remarks without which transportation can't be done. Of course, even transportation is highly political as Hogan proved when he came into office and Baltimore briefly disappeared from his transportation map altogether. Maryland's largest transportation project ever, Baltimore's Red Line disappeared for good, at least under this Governor. It didn't matter then, that the region, and the feds had been in a perfect alignment and that the State under O'Malley had been, too. Elections have consequences as Baltimore can now see on the State and the federal level, even if Pugh feels she can get along well with Hogan and maybe even the new President.
Transition team members standing with the Mayor for the photo opp
Additional advice comes from CPHA, the Baltimore Citizen, Planning and Housing Association which last fall had conducted a series of topic oriented sessions at the University of Baltimore.  They distilled ideas and recommendations for the Mayor under the title A Bigger, Better, and Bolder Baltimore: The key recommendations are:
  • Develop One Overarching Plan for Baltimore’s Future and better coordinate the scattering of single issue plans across City Government.
  • Emphasize transparency and accountability across City Government with CitiStat 2.0.
  • Develop a City Transportation Strategy.
  • Improve transparency and community engagement in approving Tax Increment Financing packages and other public incentives for community and economic development.
  • Build on the City’s Vacants to Value program to provide housing to more Baltimoreans, repurpose land where appropriate, and generally revitalize our neighborhoods and environment. 
  • Improve the City’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance so that is actually products affordable units.
  • Word Cloud for transportation as part of CPHA workshops
"Baltimore is at a crossroads. It is hard to think of a time in recent history where our challenges and opportunities are so clear, and right at a major turnover in city government,... To date little has been outlined by the new Baltimore city administration in terms of a new path forward for community and economic development, transit, housing, and planning...bold strategies are needed to move our city forward for everyone. They need broad input, implementation, and then relentless follow-up." (CPHA report).
One of CPHA recommendations is to plan projects and initiatives across departments instead of the traditional department-based approach. The real world doesn't conform to those bureaucratic boundaries and a project-based approach would yield better results in many cases. This is an idea Mayor Pugh has already implemented in her new crime fighting strategy in which all departments, not just police, were asked by her about how they can contribute to crime fighting.

CPHA's forums did not reach a clear conclusion regarding TIF's reflecting the divided Baltimore citizenship. CPHA recommends this for tax increment financing:
While some organizations and citizens will always take a stance of opposition, CPHA’s forum highlights that many potentially supportive citizens don’t feel adequately briefed on Tax Increment Financing, a complicated development financing tool. However, they might be more supportive of development projects if individual incentives like TIFs or Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) were fully explained and linked to the City’s goals. 
● Action: the City should establish a formalized, objective and open process for the public to assess the merit of future incentive projects over a certain capital threshold, increase transparency, and document the success and status of previous incentive projects
In his Monday column Dan Rodricks quoted a reader who expressed impatience with the new Mayor. 
"It has been nearly three months since she was sworn in and I have yet to hear any articulation of her plans for the city. What issues motivate her? What initiatives does she have planned?" (SUN)
If we look to Washington one can certainly see a whole lot of action in just a few weeks. However, given the fragile state of Baltimore, action aimed simply at destabilizing the current order is hardly what this city needs. A prudent, careful and informed approach is probably more productive. Catherine Pugh has shown some innovative actions, including when she packed her entire cabinet into a bus and drove them to Sandtown. This creative high energy level needs to continue. While City government doesn't need to be destabilized, keeping the pressure up on departments is necessary. Hopefully these transition reports can provide the Mayor with ammunition.

Right now the Mayor is under pressure to resolve the school funding crisis. The education chapter of the transition report stresses the importance of the schools and has many recommendations what the schools should provide but no recommendation how to pay for it. CPHA's slogan of Bigger, better and bolder holds the answer. Bigger means, more students, and that means more money for schools.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The author was a member of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Transition team.

Video of the Press Conference
Complete Transition Report