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Wishy-washy City Council


For a fleeting moment last fall, it looked as if Baltimore's City Council had it all together.

First it angered homeless advocates by enacting a law that banned aggressive panhandling. Then the council went against the wishes of the liquor and advertising industries -- traditionally big campaign contributors -- and passed a landmark bill that made Baltimore the first city in the country to ban liquor billboards that were concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods.

By the time the council returned from its Christmas recess, however, this momentum had been lost. Allegations of wrongdoing against City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean began to consume much of the council's time, particularly after several members started jockeying for her job. Meanwhile, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke's early challenge of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke led many members to examine their options in next year's elections. Suddenly, everyone was looking out for No. 1 -- themselves.

The past few months have demonstrated how destructive this kind of all-consuming angling can be. While some of the distractions may disappear if and when the McLean case is resolved, no permanent improvement is in sight until after the 1995 city elections. Which means that the council is likely to be a wishy-washy body for another year.

One of the big casualties of this spring's goings-on was the council members' respect for each other. It was initially impaired by the extraordinary visit by five council members -- Vera P. Hall, Iris G. Reeves, Sheila Dixon, Melvin L. Stukes and Carl Stokes -- to the chambers of Joseph H. H. Kaplan, chief administrative judge of Baltimore Circuit Court. Those politicians ostensibly wanted to make sure that Ms. McLean would get a fair trial. But their motives were questioned after a number of the visitors -- above all Ms. Reeves, who has made it clear she wants Ms. McLean's job -- tried to deny the meeting happened.

Matters went from bad to worse in late June when the three Fifth District representatives -- Ms. Hall, Ms. Reeves and Rochelle "Rikki" Spector -- were among five members who did not show up for an important vote in the council's last session. Council President Clarke likened those absent to "third-graders in school" wanting a recess before the work was done.

The participation of Ms. Hall, Mayor Schmoke's floor leader, in these shenanigans is particularly lamentable. She and her colleagues will need to do some deep soul searching over the summer to refocus the council on business that really matters.

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