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City Council will get tougher


IF ONE WERE TO look for a common thread in my legislative agenda for this session of the Baltimore City Council, it would be promoting accountability, responsiveness and performance in city government.

Two tools will serve to implement my vision of a more answerable and effective municipal government: the council's authority over agencies' budgets and the council's power to hold legislative oversight hearings.

While the council's authority over the city's budget is limited to passing it or making cuts to it, I worked with my colleagues on the council and the Board of Estimates to develop a new means for bringing about improvement: Withholding portions of an under-performing agency's budget until improvement is evident. This is a powerful tool, and it's one I plan to keep in the council's arsenal.

There are four areas from which we have withheld funds so far. During the forthcoming session, I expect to hear of improvements in solid waste collection, 311 service, Neighborhood Service Centers, and the housing inspections division. These are not the only areas of concern, but they are the first to be addressed by the council through this new budget tool.

The council will also use public legislative oversight hearings - on subjects ranging from the handling of the raw sewage spill at Dundalk Pumping Station to assessing the city's HIV and AIDS intervention plan - to demonstrate that council oversight is alive and well. Since we must be careful not to withhold funds from an agency hastily, public hearings become our primary tool for fostering accountability, responsiveness and performance in the city.

All department and agency heads confirmed during our first session are aware that they will be reviewed by the council periodically. During this session, we will be reviewing heads of finance, public works, housing, police, health, planning, fire, personnel, and law.

Also, the mayor's nominee to lead the Department of Recreation and Parks, Marvin Billups Sr., will likely undergo the confirmation process during the first few weeks of October. From his confirmation hearings, we expect to learn how he plans to make our parks an asset and what programs he believes will increase the value of our recreation centers for both youth and seniors.

In turn, the council will provide the department with some tools to boost recreation programs and ensure that parks play a major role in enhancing their surrounding communities.

Part of promoting accountability, responsiveness and performance in city government is working in partnership with our state delegation to Annapolis. During the last state legislative session, we worked closer than ever with the Baltimore City delegation. And we planned to hold the first-ever meeting between the entire council and the full state delegation today.

We must work more closely with our natural allies - those who are stakeholders in this city - to garner funds for education and drug treatment and improve the quality of life in Baltimore.

Maryland has cleared the way for municipalities to exempt community associations from certain property taxes. Now, the council must take up this issue to ensure that Baltimore's community associations are not burdened by these taxes, helping them to prosper.

Our council will also pass legislation this session to end race-based traffic stops. I have no shortage of outrage that similar legislation prohibiting racial profiling by police died at the state level during the last legislative session. This issue is important to city residents and will not die at the municipal level.

Working toward racial harmony in this city not only requires that government treat all its citizens equally, it also requires that government create an environment of stability and economic opportunity. Whether you are black, Asian, white or Hispanic, homeownership and business opportunities increase your stake in the success of this city. Through my roles on the council and the Board of Estimates, I will work to fuel the renaissance that has taken hold during the first eight months of the new administration by creating such opportunities.

Lastly, I will continue my assault on the poisoning of our children by lead paint. The council has already addressed the problem by posting notices of lead-contaminated homes and lead testing of children. We will be looking at two other lead paint initiatives: One to give the city greater authority in inspecting homes where lead paint is suspected to be a problem, the other to create a register of lead-contaminated homes to share with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

This session promises to nurture our city's rebirth while extending our good fortunes to all of our citizens. I have always believed that our citizens will have the government they deserve when government agencies fulfill their intended purposes efficiently, implement the vision of elected leaders with a sense of urgency, respond readily and with an understanding ear to constituents and are answerable to the citizens and elected leaders.

The reward of implementing this legislative agenda is knowing that we will have moved closer to achieving the ideal of an accountable, responsive and capable city government.

Sheila Dixon is president of the Baltimore City Council.

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