Council's new guy is chaos


As he rose to bid his colleagues on the Baltimore City Council farewell, Timothy D. Murphy reminisced about the good times, told a few jokes and left with a plain admonishment.

"It's important that this body act in an agreeable and professional and cooperative fashion," he said. "Because the alternative is for the members of 1995, as the election approaches, to succumb, and [turn] this organization into a forum for invective. Should that occur, the city of Baltimore would be in grave danger."

Three months later, the parting remarks of Mr. Murphy, who became a state delegate, appear prophetic.

The council, well-known for its posturing and rivalry for (x recognition, has become increasingly chaotic and, at times, out of control.

In what City Hall observers call an embarrassing breakdown of etiquette, council members have traded insults, staged a walkout that brought a meeting to a halt and maneuvered to amend or defeat proposals when sponsors were ill.

Baltimore's 19-member council does not have much power and only rarely passes legislation of sweeping importance. But the escalating tensions have prompted some to wonder whether election-year aspirations are harming legislative efforts.

Others blame the disruptiveness on the mayoral ambitions of Council President Mary Pat Clarke and question her ability to control the fractured group. There also have been suggestions that it is time for the council to shed its informality.

"It's out of order," said Kelley Ray, who is running for a 1st District seat and routinely attends council meetings. "There's a total disregard for individuals as well as the process."

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who served on the council from 1982 to 1987, said: "I don't know if you get an efficient government out of it. Everyone has a right to run for office, but I would hope that all the participants understand that the people doing the voting are watching all of this."

In the past six weeks, Ms. Ray and others who show up for the Monday night meetings, which are broadcast on cable television, have seen events that included:

* Mrs. Clarke resuscitating the Legislative Investigations Committee, which has not met in nearly four years, and stacking it with four outspoken critics of the Schmoke administration's troubled $25.6 million public housing repair program.

Her move came just days after a seven-hour hearing into the program's well-publicized problems was denounced by those critics as a charade. Now the Legislative Investigations Committee has begun its own review with the first hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. today.

* Fourth District Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III trying March 13 to force a vote on a long-stalled measure to remove furniture and appliances left after evictions. The bill's sponsor, Council Vice President Vera P. Hall, was home sick at the time.

Councilwoman Hall, whose eviction proposal upset tenants and landlords alike, also has come under fire for her handling of the earlier housing hearing. But Mrs. Hall, who is running for the council presidency, in turn has criticized her rivals, who include Mr. Bell and 2nd District Councilman Carl Stokes.

* Six council members walking off the floor March 6 to thwart maneuvering over the city's trash-disposal plan while its sponsor, 3rd District Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, was at home recuperating from knee surgery.

The surprising standoff forced Mrs. Clarke to reconvene the council the next morning. The waste plan was approved without an amendment sought by Mrs. Clarke and the 1st District delegation -- but not without a nasty exchange between Mr. Cunningham and Councilman John L. Cain from the 1st District.

Martin E. "Mike" Curran, a 3rd District representative who is known as "the dean," said, "I've been on this council for 18 years, and I've never seen so much discourtesy toward fellow members that has come down in the last couple of weeks. It's sort of getting disgusting."

Mr. Curran, who participated in the walkout, and others fret that the council's established committee system has been thrown into disarray.

But Mrs. Clarke defends her leadership of the council and says the events only reflect the "widely divergent views on the council."

"Part of it is an election year, and a lot of things are changing because of that. You get that at this time every four years," said Mrs. Clarke,who is challenging Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's bid for a third term.

Known for her independence, the council president said she's never tried to control a 10-vote majority block and sees her role as facilitator. "Basically, I chair the meetings and work with individual members to get their legislation through," she said.

Third District Councilman Martin O'Malley says Mrs. Clarke is not to blame for the council turmoil and considers it healthy.

Recent flare-ups resulted from the housing controversy and attempts by allies of the mayor to "circle the wagons" on the no-bid program, said Mr. O'Malley, a critic who was appointed by Mrs. Clarke to chair the Legislative Investigations Committee.

But Mrs. Clarke's opponents say she is deliberately allowing the tumult to provide television sound bites for the mayor's critics.

"I think as the person who should be keeping things intact, she has shown very little leadership," said 4th District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, who complains that Mrs. Clarke is not respecting the rules of the council.

For his part, Mr. Schmoke said the tumult has not stopped the council's work, but Mrs. Clarke's confrontational style "does not lend itself really to controlling the council." He said he would prefer to work in partnership with a council president.

"It seems to a great extent on a lot of issues the council members ignore the president," said Mr. Schmoke. "But it sure would be easier to have a more cooperative relationship."

Much of the posturing in the council can be attributed to the highly unusual circumstance of having the council president challenge the mayor, and four council members seek her job.

During the past three decades, council presidents have often moved up to become mayor. Among them were Philip H. Goodman, who became mayor when J. Harold Grady was appointed a judge in 1962, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III and both William Donald Schaefer and Mr. Burns. But none of them ran against an incumbent mayor.

To Thomas J. S. Waxter Jr., who formerly represented the 5th District, the usual election-year posturing has been infused with greater significance because of the housing controversy.

"I think they are try to conscientiously do the right thing," he said. "I don't necessarily think what's going on is bad."

Looking back on his years on the council, however, he added that he enjoyed the job -- up to the last six months of the term.

"Politics, I used to say, was wonderful. Constituent services, personal relationships, it was terrific for 3 1/2 years," he said. "Then it became personal, political and extremely combative."

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