THE DECISION by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to evaluate the city law department and find ways to rely less on outside legal advice comes at an opportune time. With the mayor having crushed his opposition in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, he has a chance to change the way he runs the city and attack weaknesses in his administration's past performance.
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke made good mileage in her campaign against Mr. Schmoke by pointing out how extravagant the city has been in hiring legal consultants. A report from the mayor in July showed Baltimore had spent $18 million for work by private law firms during the preceding 4 1/2 years. We, and others, asked: How could that be when the city has 78 lawyers on its own staff and spends $10 million a year on the law department?
But Mr. Schmoke kept defending the expenditures, including $2 million paid to the Shapiro & Olander firm, which employs his two top political advisers. Perhaps the mayor feared losing votes if he admitted before the election that the city pays excess legal fees.
That he is willing to make that concession with the political
pressure turned down is a positive sign. It provides hope that the mayor hasn't been lulled by the margin of his election victory into thinking Baltimore wants him to maintain the status quo.
Mr. Schmoke says he would like the evaluation to show why sometimes the city has to get legal help. Most citizens, however, already understand there are special cases requiring expertise not found on the city's legal staff. The question is whether it might be more cost-effective to hire lawyers with such expertise.
The law department is being asked to establish guidelines for hiring private lawyers; evaluate the bond work and other legal services done by private firms to see if more could be handled internally; examine whether quasi-public agencies are
appropriately handling their legal fees, and eliminate any private work being done on the side by the city's own lawyers.
The mayor has persuaded City Solicitor Neal M. Janey, who before the election announced he would be entering private practice, to stay on and conduct the legal department review. A report is expected by December.
The sooner, the better. Reduced legal fees would mean more money for Mr. Schmoke to spend on Baltimore's many pressing priorities.