O'Malley is hot, but can he deliver?


JUST HOW popular is Mayor Martin O'Malley after six months in City Hall?

Judge for yourself:

He beat the three most recent city mayors, including the highly regarded William Donald Schaefer, in a poll of Baltimoreans conducted last month by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc.

Among African-Americans, Baltimore's majority, Mr. O'Malley got a 70 percent job approval rating. His support was even higher - 84 percent - among whites.

These would be astounding numbers for any politician. They are particularly impressive for the 37-year-old former City Council member. He was given little chance to win when he entered the mayoral race less than a year ago, pledging to reverse Baltimore's sagging fortunes and repair its image.

After the first six months, the jury is still out on the mayor's effectiveness. He has raised expectations by setting goals and making announcements. But he has yet to show major achievements.

While the mayor has made good on his campaign promise to shut down 10 of the worst open-air drug markets, drug-related killings have continued unabated. At the current rate, this year will again end with more than 300 homicides - for the 11th consecutive time.

The mayor's vigorous style, nevertheless, has produced a sense of hope unfelt in Baltimore for more than a decade. One sign: bidding wars for homes in some of the most desirable neighborhoods.

In a city that is still losing population to the counties, this real estate fever is an anomaly. But it is said to involve trendsetters-- professional, high-visibility families. Remarkably, many have small children. Because the buyers are well-off, the deplorable overall quality of city public schools does not faze them; they send their kids to private schools.

Similarly, they are not overly concerned about the city's homicide epidemic, knowing killings are largely confined to areas near slum drug markets.

In brief, these buyers are taking a calculated risk. They have seen other troubled cities stage dramatic turnarounds. With Mr. O'Malley at the helm, they think a resurgence is possible here, too.

Knowing that measurable improvements will take time, the O'Malley administration wants to foster the impression that better days are just around the corner.

Watch for two media-tailored dog-and-pony shows in the coming weeks:

* A long-awaited report by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable will analyze the shortcomings of city agencies and recommend reforms. The document is expected to be the basis for the O'Malley administration's attempt to overhaul the municipal government structure.

* The splashy introduction to the public of a new, computerized war room on the sixth floor of City Hall. This is where city department heads will brief the mayor on service and infrastructure problems.

The war room illustrates the O'Malley administration's belief that thorny service problems are best addressed through computer mapping and statistical analysis. That method is already in use in the police department, where the top brass gathers regularly to track crime trends and strategize deployment.

The encounter-like sessions identify hot spots, assign responsibilities and monitor follow-up.

Since his campaign, reducing homicides has been Mr. O'Malley's top priority. He recognizes his political future rides on whether he can deliver on his promises.

He has demonstrated his impatience.

He dumped his first police commissioner, an African-American, after only 57 days, even though the move was fraught with political risk. The reason was that the mayor and Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel did not see eye-to-eye on how to bring the violence under the control.

The mayor then continued his gamble. He insisted that the City Council accept the promotion of Edward T. Norris, a former New York deputy police commissioner, who is white. After some controversy, the confirmation vote was unanimous.

Baltimoreans clearly like the mayor's resolve. In a sample of 426 registered voters, the Gonzales/Arscott poll found that 51 percent of African-Americans and 78 percent of whites approved of the Norris appointment.

The tougher policing he advocates - misleadingly described as "zero tolerance" - was backed by 69 percent of whites, but only 47 percent of blacks.

"I am absolutely confident that homicides will start going down," the mayor said in a interview. But his early optimism about a quick drop is tempered.

The police department simply is not up to the task. It is badly understaffed, undertrained and lacks critical technical resources. For example, it has virtually no wiretapping capability, although that is essential in conducting investigations into high-level drug trafficking.

The department also has been a revolving door.

When Mr. Daniel was appointed in December, he replaced his predecessor's top brass. After Mr. Norris was sworn in, he in turn got rid of Mr. Daniel's colonels. As a result, many commanders are unproven leaders.

In addition to tackling police issues, the mayor is cracking tough nuts in other agencies as well:

* He keeps trying to find a way to break contractual parity in firefighters' and police salaries. His argument is that police officers, who are difficult to recruit, deserve more money than firefighters, who are in ample supply.

* He proposed that seven fire stations be closed in a cost-cutting and reorganization move that would upgrade more needed medical emergency services.

For years, politicians have avoided these hot potatoes. The O'Malley proposals triggered a predictable ripple of protests. The parity issue is still unresolved, but on the fire stations he got his way. A compromise was reached that will shut down five fire stations this year, with more restructuring coming in future years.

The mayor will soon tackle yet another longstanding bone of contention: reorganizing solid waste collection in the city, where many neighborhoods remain trash- strewn despite occasional well-publicized cleanups.

"We are going to see a big change in the city," Public Works Director George Winfield promises. "I'm betting my career in public works on the reorganization of solid waste."

Change is in the air in other bureaucracies, too.

In February - two months after he took office - Mayor O'Malley's transition team surveyed the city's performance in 13 specific areas - from education to recreation to finance. Improvement goals were set, including six-month benchmarks.

Some of those goals will be met when those six months end in August. Many others are still in the works. Bureaucratic change, Mr. O'Malley is learning, can be a time-consuming process.

The mayor says he is also realizing something else: To cut through inertia and red tape, he needs to get personally involved in matters that do not interest him. This seems to be a revelation to him.

Mr. O'Malley is a natural performer with superb people skills. His legal training has given him a disciplined approach to problem-solving. These are great assets.

In the long run, though, popularity and promises are not enough. The mayor must produce a demonstrable improvement in the quality of city life.

Baltimore is still waiting.

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