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Multi-member districts give citizens choicesThe League of...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Multi-member districts give citizens choices

The League of Women Voters' proposal to re-align Baltimore's City Council into nine single-member districts is ill-conceived ("A small setback for good government," editorial, Sept. 2).

At present, voters pick three council-members from each district. And, for perhaps as long as there has been a City Council, constituent service has been a large part of council members' duties.

It is unrealistic for Baltimore League of Women Voters President Millie Tyssowski to suggest "services performed by council members for their constituents such as problems of trash, potholes" will decrease after well over a century of members doing such things ("Cut the City Council to nine members," Opinion

Commentary, Aug. 8).

With the city's dearth of funds, and as Mayor Martin O'Malley makes employee and service reductions, city agencies will be hard-pressed to provide services, especially without that push from a council member. Thus there will still be a need for council members to serve as ombudsmen for their constituents and the people will still desire that service.

The district's three council members are individuals, with different personalities and agendas. Under the current system each constituent has a choice of which representative is most likely to respond to his or her needs.

A resident can usually find at least one of the three who shares his or her views and can be looked to for help. And if one member won't do the job, the citizen can turn to another. Citizens have three chances to find help.

But if there were only one council member per district, and the election winner was completely unsatisfactory and unresponsive to a resident's needs, where could that citizen turn for help?

Baltimore has a long tradition of multiple-member council districts and of constituents depending on members to get services. Multi-member districts give citizens alternatives to turn to for constituent services.

Harry E. Bennett Jr., Baltimore

Congress needs to take action on critical issues

As we head into the last weeks of the 106th Congress, we have the opportunity to enact important legislation, but only if the Republican leaders in the House and Senate decide it's time to set politics aside and get down to business.

Unfortunately, this Congress has little to show for itself on important issues that Americans feel strongly about, such as prescription drug coverage under Medicare, a patient's bill of rights, education, gun safety and campaign finance reform.

These five issues have strong bipartisan support in Congress. In political parlance, these bills are all "doable." Yet at this time, they are not getting done.

The problem rests with the leaders of this Congress who have chosen not to move forward.

This is a time when the Republican leaders in the House and Senate should be aggressively pushing to enact the major agenda items of this Congress. They should be searching for bipartisan agreements with the minority party and the president so that these high-priority bills can become law.

Instead, the pace of legislative activity has actually slowed down.

There is major legislation hanging in the balance. Let's take the Patients Bill of Rights Act (PBRA). In January, a study showed that 72 percent of Americans want a patients' bill of rights that includes the right to sue their health plan.

Instead of putting the PBRA, which has strong bipartisan support, on the floor for a final vote, the leadership has had it bottled up in a conference committee for nearly a year. It is possible the bill will die there upon adjournment, which is scheduled for Oct. 6.

Much the same is true of bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation.

In September 1999, with strong Republican and Democratic support, campaign finance reform legislation that would ban soft money passed the House. Yet Senate leaders have chosen to keep campaign finance reform stuck in a conference committee, where it could very well die.

The story repeats itself with education, gun safety, and prescription drugs for seniors. Stall and delay appear to be the tactics used by congressional leaders to avoid passing legislation that most Americans clearly support.

Some political observers ascribe the stalling to politics. Some have speculated that the Republicans want to deny President Clinton a legacy in the form of a prescription drug benefit under Medicare or a patients' bill of rights.

But it is pretty poor politics to let issues that Americans care about die a political death.

There is still time left for this Congress to get down to business. We have a full agenda -- on education, gun safety, campaign finance reform, patients' bill of rights, prescription drugs for Medicare -- but we also have enough bipartisan support to get bills enacted.

But, while many Democratic and Republican members are fighting to get these bills enacted, it's clear that the Republican leadership does not want these bills to become law.

It's a sad state of affairs when the people and their elected representatives want to get to work, but the congressional leadership denies them the opportunity.

Benjamin L. Cardin, Washington

The writer represents the 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Public workers try to help researchers

After weeks of watching public employees dumped on because of their responses to requests for public information, I have to offer comments from my own experience ("Test finds public records kept from the public," Aug. 30).

Most people have heard of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but few people have any idea of what it, and its companion state law, the Public Information Act (PIA), actually entail.

The public employee is really in the middle with these laws. The agency housing the record sought and the custodian in charge of it are subject to penalties for not releasing it if it meets the criteria for release, but can also be penalized for releasing records that are specifically protected from release.

What The Sun characterized as resistance was caution borne of fear.

As for the employees asking why the information was wanted, a public employee can help someone with a genuine problem focus his or her search (for which the person may have to pay) by asking a few simple questions.

Believe it or not we are here to help; we have done this before and we are pretty good at it.

I was involved with one FOIA/PIA request where a woman asked for every well sample report within a mile radius of a location.

I could have been the good little bureaucrat and produced dozens, if not hundreds, of sample results which would have been meaningless to her but would have legally fulfilled my FOIA/PIA obligations.

Instead, I broke the law, asked her why and discovered that she was negotiating to buy a house and wanted to assure herself that the well water was safe.

I put her in touch with the section that handles such matters and she got her answer quickly and for free rather than in the 11th hour, after paying for the search.

Was the citizen better served?

Just about every request to a government agency can be construed as a FOIA/PIA request.

But, rather than criticize how a contrived request was handled, The Sun should find out how citizens, with real problems are helped quickly, expertly and for free every day.

H. Frederick Jones Jr., Timonium

The writer is environmental programs manager for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Botswana isn't to blame for 11-year old's death

While The Sun's article on a child killed in Botswana focused on his mother's effort to cope with her loss, it seemed to suggest that Botswana's tight gun control was a factor in the child's death in a hyena's jaws ("A deadly safari ends in a cry for answers," Sept. 17).

I doubt it. As an adviser to the government of Botswana in the 1980s, I heard of one or two similar cases each year. The common denominator seemed to be an inability to understand that the best protection in the bush is to respect nature's rules for living there, not to be well-armed.

Botswana's wilderness areas such as the Okavango are one of the few examples of real Africa left on earth. Humans should not treat such areas as zoos.

During my first year in Botswana, a Danish family decided to do their own safari and sleep in the open. We shared their pain when they described having to retreat to their Land Rover and watch a pride of lions eat their toddler.

While cases like this can make front-page news, The Sun should have inserted a reality check.

When I arrived in Botswana, I found it to be the only African democracy with a policy of no guns and no army and the best record for uncorrupted investment of it's gains from natural resources in internal development.

The article suggested Zimbabwe and South Africa as models for Botswana.

But if you total the annual loss of life by animal attacks and death by guns in this mostly unarmed country, it would be insignificant compared to one day's violence in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

James Upchurch, Frederick

Mark Garrity Shea's death is indeed a horrible tragedy for an innocent child and his family. We are outraged, however, to hear that the family is trying to place blame on the touring company and the country of Botswana.

This is a perfect example of a wealthy American family going to a foreign country and expecting to be kept safe from the elements, no matter how dangerous.

The Jacobs should have researched their vacation more thoroughly before taking their 11-year-old into the wilderness.

Had they done so, they might have learned that guns are not allowed in the area they were traveling and that the campground was not protected from wildlife.

The fact that this poor child was allowed to sleep alone in a canvas tent in the wild was extremely negligent. His parent placed this child in tremendous danger.

Now she has to find a way to live with that, rather than participating in the recent American tradition of shifting the blame to anyone but themselves.

Cathy S. Hyman, James D. King, Reisterstown

However bright, personable and book-smart little Mark Garrity Shea might have been, no 11-year-old should be sleeping alone in a tent in the bush of Africa.

As in the animal kingdom, mothers need to protect their young. Although Brucie Jacobs was "paying a lot of money," the fact remains she was not paying attention.

By indulging her child's wishes and fantasies and ignoring common sense now, sadly, Ms. Jacobs is left to pay the highest price of all.

A. Wilkins, Baltimore

Suburbs can't have it all

A recent letter implored the governor not to promote high-density urban sprawl, arguing that "If those of us living in the suburbs wanted to live in the city, we would have moved there" ("Don't make the suburbs resemble our blighted cities," Sept. 7).

But many suburbanites want to live in a never-never land with all the conveniences of living near a city but none of the liabilities.

They want to be able to go to the Inner Harbor for dinner and the Meyerhoff for a concert. They want to take visitors to the National Aquarium and the Baltimore Zoo. They want to work in the bustling commercial center of the city and go home to a safe, green setting.

They want to make their income in Baltimore City, yet spend it in the suburbs and give their taxes to their home counties. They want the gala events in the heart of the metropolis, but don't want to have to bear the burdens of its poor.

They want to drive in and out every day without having to breath car exhaust in their backyards. They want to leave behind the older shopping districts and shop at the newest mega-mall.

And they want it all without, as the writer put it, "degrading their idyllic way of life."

And while many suburbanites didn't mind clearing acres of forest for their house, now they deplore another tree going down.

As more and more people want the best of both worlds, those who managed to get there often seem desperate to keep others out.

The writer asked why we should replicate urban problems in the suburbs. But the problem is the attitude of some suburbanites.

Georgia Corso, Baltimore

Rezoning Granite was wrong

The Sun's coverage of current Baltimore County zoning issues was conspicuously selective and failed to mention a major controversy that dominated the behind-the-scenes process ("Rezoning hearings to begin," Sept. 5).

The citizens of Greater Patapsco, in consort with and at the urging of Baltimore County planners and County Council members and staff, worked for several years to develop a community plan, which was adopted as part of the county's master plan.

Out of this came yet another citizen-government committee, on which I served, which developed a new zoning classification, RC-6, for the Greater Patapsco area.

This new zone, based on innovative and proven landscape models, aimed to preserve the last of the rural, historic and scenic character of Patapsco-Granite before it fell to the insatiable greed of developers and speculators.

For weeks prior to the recent County Council vote, members were lobbied vigorously and subjected to various threats by developers, religious leaders and others.

The bill that emerged and was voted into law Sept. 5 was the worst of political compromises. In place of the carefully worked-out coherence and vision of the original bill, the version that passed was a patchwork quilt of hastily brokered deals.

The final product exempted churches from zoning regulations, and explicitly grandfathered several large proposed and hotly contested developments in the Granite area, to ensure they would not be subject even to the tattered remains of the zoning classification.

The kingdom of God might not be of this earth, but it's real estate empires certainly are -- and church agents were swift and effective in crippling the original bill.

Why so many high officials of so many different faiths, including Cardinal William Keeler himself, took such great interest in a zoning classification that applies only to our little beleaguered community is an open question and one worthy of investigation by a news organization that purports to keep citizens informed.

How years of community and county government planning work evaporated over a few days is a story that I would have thought worth mentioning.

Joseph N. Tatarewicz, Granite

Addiction isn't just a city issue

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris' view that the crime problem in Baltimore has been ignored or minimized because the victims are often poor and black was right on target ("Why the city's murder rate is so high," letters, Sept. 5). So, too, were his observations about past mistakes in deploying officers and the questionable restructuring of the homicide unit.

However, the issue of drug addiction as a crime or as an illness needs further comment.

There is no doubt addiction causes widespread destruction to the individual addict, his family and the community. But we need to deal with reality: Drugs are against the law, but addiction is primarily, and always will be, a public health problem.

Holding a person accountable for his or her actions is absolutely necessary. But there is no incompatibility between arresting and convicting someone of a crime and giving him or her treatment.

There is no contradiction in saying, "This is wrong and you must stop, but we will also mandate that you stay in treatment."

Treatment at some level is a lifelong process and it almost always must be mandated, because addicts are often in denial.

There are many people in the counties surrounding Baltimore, and throughout the state, who are content to keep the drug problem from "spilling out of the city."

This is nonsense because addiction is rampant statewide. But it feeds the illusion that somehow we can bottle up this problem and keep it from spreading.

Not only is this dangerous thinking, it could ultimately be fatal. Either we will work together on this or deteriorate together.

We must vigorously address the drug problem because it is the caring, humane and right thing to do. And because treatment and accountability work.

And because the drug war is unwinnable under our current strategy.

And because $1 in treatment saves, conservatively speaking, $7 for the community (in less crime, imprisonment and lost time from work and in more productive citizens and parents).

Throw out prejudice against addicts, racism, classism and denial and Baltimore becomes every county. Baltimoreans become every citizen.

Then and only then will a murder in Cockeysville, Columbia, Potomac or Annapolis, mean the same thing as a murder on the streets of Baltimore.

And then and only them will the media treat murder the same no matter where it occurs or who the perpetrator or victim is.

After all, a life is a life. And a death is a death: a slow one from addiction or a quick one from a bullet.

Frank J. McGloin, Baltimore

Question of the Month

Got a trashy story to tell?

If you know of places in Baltimore where the trash piles higher than the weeds, share it with us. Take a photo, write the address on the back and send it in. Or send us a letter describing the problem in your neighborhood and how you'd like to see it addressed.

We are looking for 250 words or less; the deadline is Sept. 25. Letters become the property of The Sun, which reserves the right to edit them. By submitting a letter, the author grants The Sun an irrevocable, non-exclusive right and license to use and republish the letter, in whole or in part, in all media and to authorize others to reprint it.

Letters should include your name and address, along with a day and evening telephone number. E-mail us: letters@baltsun.com; write us: Letters to the Editor, The Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278-0001; fax us: 410-332-6977.

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