CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- At first glance, Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley saw the idea as a waste of time, a dozen newly elected mayors chatting it up at Harvard University when he had just three weeks to make countless personnel and policy decisions before taking office Dec. 7.
"I almost didn't come," O'Malley said as he boarded a 6: 50 a.m. US Airways flight from Baltimore to Boston on his son's second birthday. "I wanted to stay home."
But the three-day battery of workshops and field trips covering mayoral transition teams, city financing, crime, education and neighborhood revitalization appears to have helped shape O'Malley's thinking about how he will approach some of his policies.
From Wednesday morning through last night, city leaders from across the nation became students at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in a crash course on how to be a mayor.
In all, 15 of them attended the Newly Elected Mayors Program, listening to veteran mayors and political experts suggest dos and don'ts in dealing with politicos, constituents and the media as they move from candidates to their cities' chief administrators. Harvard paid airfare and hotel costs, and the mayors each paid a $250 registration fee, for which O'Malley said he used his campaign money.
"Everyone got a big chuckle back home when I told them I was going to mayors school," said Mayor-elect Bart Peterson of Indianapolis.
Since winning the Nov. 2 general election over Republican challenger David F. Tufaro, O'Malley has been working at a feverish pitch to piece together a transition team, appoint personnel and develop policy that will guide him through the early weeks and months of his administration.
Before arriving at Harvard, O'Malley gave committees on his transition team a deadline of Dec. 15 for drafts of policies for key city departments, such as public works, housing and public safety. And he has told those committees that he wants final drafts by Jan. 15 -- the week the General Assembly opens its 2000 session.
The session begins Jan. 12, a little over a month after O'Malley is sworn in, and he'll have to have an agenda ready or the city could suffer in the heated battles for state dollars with other local governments.
That's where Harvard wanted to provide some assistance to the new mayors.
"I'm impatient," O'Malley said Wednesday as the plane prepared to take off from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "We're caught up in this [transition] process. How many people are on the transition team now?"
"There are 21 on the steering committee," responded Michael Enright, a close O'Malley friend from high school and his lone companion on the trip. And then there are subcommittees with as many as a dozen people on each.
O'Malley shook his head and said he just wants to get started with his administration without all of the bureaucracy. And he wondered about attending the new mayors school with so much work to be done and on the day his son, William, turns 2.
Preparing for the trip, O'Malley gave William a party in advance, as mayors sometimes do when they can't make family affairs. And he keeps a cellular telephone at his side, making regular calls home and whispering, "I love you," to his wife and children on the other end.
On his arrival at Harvard, the back-to-back sessions begin almost immediately.
Over a lunch of glazed chicken breast and a vegetable medley, J. Thomas Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and other speakers warned the new mayors of the most pressing issues in the nation's cities.
"Every one of the mayors has the public schools looking them straight in the face," Cochran said in an interview. "They can no longer ignore the public schools. This is a time for us to look at our challenged neighborhoods. The kids need to be safe."
Harvard closed most of the sessions to the media, but a glimpse into one of the discussions shows one of O'Malley's top concerns leading the conference's agenda -- managing transition government.
Be flexible. Be patient. Don't rush, the panelists warned.
For a moment, O'Malley and his transition plans were at the center of the discussion. O'Malley was talking about his deadline for transition committees, and panel- ists fired off a flurry of comments and questions.
"What if one of your committees can't meet that deadline?" asked Mayor Lee Clancey of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"It'll just keep going," O'Malley said. "This is all a starting point. What we asked them to do is identify ways to improve" the agencies.
Even so, veterans Clancey and Mayor Scott King of Gary, Ind., urged the mayors to exercise patience.
"Your transition is a lot longer than you think; don't hurry it along," Clancey said.
"There's a continuous transition all during your service as mayor," King added.
Flurry of ideas
O'Malley later said with a smile that he likes King's philosophy. As the program moved forward, Enright, O'Malley's friend, was carrying a file folder, already fat with documents. And O'Malley couldn't stop talking about ideas.
Mayor Vincent Cianci of Providence, R.I., gave his take on how his town revitalizes neighborhoods, and it struck a chord with Baltimore's mayor-elect.
Cianci's strategy: Send in the artists.
His city offers tax breaks to artists who move into neighborhoods that need to be redeveloped. With the benefit of the tax breaks, the artists fix up parts of the area and attract other professionals seeking their talents, including lawyers who often are followed by doctors.
"Don't be afraid to take risks," Cianci told the group. "We invested in restaurants. When you build a convention center you've got to make sure people have a place to eat."
O'Malley left the session wondering how Baltimore might implement similar proposals.
As he considered Cianci's suggestions, he hopped on the subway for a private field trip to Boston City Hall, where he met with Mayor Thomas M. Menino, whose staff wants to show O'Malley another neighborhood revitalization strategy on a tour of the city.
Boston Main Streets
Menino calls the plan Boston Main Streets, a project that gives $250,000 in a matching grant to qualifying businesses to give face lifts to their storefronts and, officials hope, give the businesses a boost.
Boston officials say the program has fostered cooperation among businesses as well as stronger ties between the private sector and city government. Menino started the program when he was a councilman about 15 years ago in a community called Roslindale, where arson destroyed commercial areas in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"He was able to marshal a lot of city resources," said Katherine Kottaridis, director of the Office of Business Development, which oversees the Main Streets project. "The economy is really great right now. The challenge is to keep this going before there is a downturn."
Driving down Boston streets, O'Malley asked aloud why Baltimore streets aren't as clean and why Boston, a city with 50,000 fewer people, had just 27 homicides last year.
Baltimore averages more than 300.
Yesterday, O'Malley maintained that he still had much work to do in Baltimore during the next three weeks, but he said the trip gave him a lot to think about.
"It's all been interesting," O'Malley said. "The best part for me is meeting my peers and the tour. The Main Streets project, we're going to do that."