When five novices were elected to the 18-member City Council last fall, we voiced optimism that this infusion of new blood would produce a more effective leadership body. As the new council begins a summer recess after its first seven months, the signs look promising. The council has become bolder, forcing firmer stands from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as well.
Mr. Schmoke's flip-flopping on two controversial issues -- auto insurance and an incinerator ban -- highlighted how the council was able to force his hand.
On auto insurance, the mayor first opposed the city's financing of an actuarial study to determine whether a non-profit agency would be a feasible alternative to commercial insurers. The private insurers continue to charge city residents far higher rates than drivers elsewhere in Maryland. But when the council grabbed a leadership role on the matter, the mayor turned around and promised to finance the "lion's share" of a $150,000 business plan and actuarial study of the idea.
The mayor similarly felt a moratorium on waste incinerators was the wrong way to approach a pollution problem that had riled eastside residents. But after the council indicated it was going to pass the measure anyway (and after some of the mayor's specific concerns were satisfied), Mr. Schmoke endorsed the ordinance that will ban modernization or expansion of the Pulaski incinerator and other such burners.
Indeed, some observers think the council's stronger role is a direct response to the mayor's laid-back style. "I think the council's assertiveness comes from the mayor not being hands on," says one long-time legislative operative.
In the view of Council President Mary Pat Clarke, much of the group's bolder spirit is due to its new members. "Lots of new people brought lots of that energy to the council," she said. According to Vera Hall, the council's vice president and Mayor Schmoke's floor leader, the legislative body is more independent-minded than before and keener on addressing broader issues. "It's definitely not a pothole council," she said, referring to past criticism that council members were overly preoccupied with parochial issues.
When the council resumes its regular meetings in September, it ought to concentrate on building bridges to its colleagues in Baltimore County. Before the 1990 elections produced a wholesale change of the leadership in the county, the two councils had started unprecedented cooperation in several areas. The time is ripe for resumption of such joint efforts. We urge the City Council to take the initiative.