Mayor quick with questions, praise at Cabinet meetings


Mayor Martin O'Malley brings his Cabinet to order, gently tapping his pen against the wooden conference table.

The police commissioner, the public works director and 10 other city agency heads line the rectangular conference-room table behind the locked doors of the mayor's second-floor City Hall offices. The front line is flanked by a second row of aides and secretaries, who sit with their backs to the wall, pen and paper in hand, waiting for an edict to tumble from the mayor's mouth.

They gather here, in the executive conference room, every Tuesday morning at 8:30 to update O'Malley and find ways to spur city government's often-unwieldy $1.8 billion operation into daily action that can be felt on Baltimore's marble steps.

It is no surprise when O'Malley - elected in November on a pledge to cut city crime - turns to city Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris for the first report.

"How goes the war, Commissioner Norris?" O'Malley asks.

With elbows on the table, the barrel-chested Norris leans forward, offering good news. Crime for June dropped 6 percent over the same month last year, 18 percent for the year. Most importantly, murders for the month fell seven over last year - 22 to 15.

The number, however, is too close for O'Malley's comfort.

"How many days left in the month?" the mayor asks.

Three days remain, and before the end of this 24-hour period, two more victims will raise the monthly tally.

As with his mayoral predecessors, O'Malley's Cabinet meetings reflect the man.

The hourlong sessions aren't fueled by the terror and wrath of Mayor William Donald Schaefer, dubbed "Mayor Annoyed" for his attempts to motivate underlings. And the staff reports aren't delivered in the structured, book-report manner appreciated by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

O'Malley tries to keep meetings on edge, unpredictable, the teacher calling on anxious students in an effort to maintain a sense of urgency.

In the same room each Thursday morning, he fields questions from the news media. On Tuesdays, however, he hurls the queries.

"Is this a pop quiz?" O'Malley asks city Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne after requesting an update on city efforts to link poor families with help to pay gas and electric bills.

Oil paintings of two Lords Baltimore - who governed Maryland's settlers more than three centuries ago - hang above O'Malley on each side wall. At the far end, bottomless pots of regular and decaf brew. O'Malley visits the urns before the meeting, stoking his engine with caffeine.

The meeting toggles back and forth between urgencies such as the poor's unpaid utility bills and long-term O'Malley goals.

Head cheerleader

O'Malley appears most comfortable in his role as head city cheerleader.

He rolls kudos down the end of the table to city Personnel Director Jesse E. Hoskins, who directed a 10-week executive leadership seminar for midlevel managers. The city paid a Johns Hopkins University professor $1,500 to help supervisors brainstorm about improving service and deftly handling irate complaints.

"The amount of energy in that room was excellent," O'Malley says.

The rah-rah continues when Jeanne D. Hitchcock, deputy mayor of intergovernmental affairs, details the city's preparation for the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Because the NAACP's national headquarters sits in Northwest Baltimore, O'Malley openly frets, warning staff that anything less than perfection for the weeklong event that begins tomorrow is unacceptable.

"Their headquarters are here, and when their national membership comes here, we should overextend ourselves," O'Malley tells Hitchcock. "Find out what [NAACP Board Chairman] Julian Bond's favorite cigars are, whatever it takes."

O'Malley then alerts staffers about a welcoming event July 20 for new schools Superintendent Carmen V. Russo at the Latin Palace on South Broadway.

Russo, a Hispanic, will further balance the Cabinet that O'Malley boasts is split along gender and race lines with 15 men and nine women, 13 African-Americans.

Booker's last update

The mayor calls on outgoing schools chief Robert Booker for an update, the last one from the chief executive officer of the school system who chose not to seek reappointment.

Negotiations with the state for more school money have begun even though city dollars are "falling off the table," says Booker. The room turns somber when Booker delivers a farewell assessment of his two-year tenure.

"I believe our teachers are invested, our children invested," Booker says. "I came here two years ago because I thought I could help the kids, and I've come to love Baltimore."

O'Malley searches for a response, uncharacteristically stammering a bit before commending Booker for the city's recent rise in pupil test scores.

The mayor never mentions the lucrative $12.3 million no-bid school computer contracts that resulted in the recent resignation of Booker's chief financial officer and suspension of a top deputy.

"You took over a school system when nobody wanted it," O'Malley says in a compassionate whisper. "You've restored hope to the school system."

City Recreation and Parks Director Thomas Overton reports that the city recently renovated and reopened 14 playgrounds. O'Malley turns to Deputy Mayor of Operations David Scott on his left, asking why he wasn't invited to the opening of a Madison Street playground in East Baltimore.

"I should have been there," he says. "How did that happen?"

With the rapid-fire meeting spilling past the allotted hour, O'Malley places his palms on the table ready to break the huddle before spotting Yvonne Gilchrist, director of the Baltimore Department of Social Services.

Final business

The state employee who attends the city Cabinet meetings failed to register on the mayor's radar screen - until now.

"Ms. Gilchrist, do you have anything?" O'Malley asks.

She is pressing on with the mayor's desire to put a social worker into each of the city's nine police districts, she says.

"Great!" O'Malley shouts.

Gilchrist tempers the young mayor's enthusiasm, noting that for now, only one social worker will be placed in the city's central police district.

"We can't do that yet," Gilchrist says of the nine.

"Next month?" O'Malley asks.

The mayor then dashes off to the next meeting, for which he is already late, as the group disperses, assignments in hand.

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