THERE IS A REAL chance for Baltimore's legislative branch to become more assertive in running the city, a change long needed to counterbalance the dominant power granted the mayor by the charter. But none of this will happen unless the City Council has a purposeful and skilled president.
On Sept. 9, Democrats will choose the next likely occupant of this post in the citywide primary election. This president will be tasked to lead a drastically different City Council. Gone will be the decades-old system of six districts with three representatives. Instead, each of the 14 districts will elect a single member.
Voters mandated this reorganization a year ago. They were sick and tired of politics as usual and wanted more responsive government. This is a demand the next council and its president must satisfy.
The overall situation is awkward. A series of legislative missteps has produced an unfortunate 14-month lapse between the primary and the November 2004 general election. In these circumstances, the incumbent, Sheila Dixon, offers the best hope among the four Democratic candidates for focused leadership that ensures both continuity and a productive transition to the new structure.
She has to reinvent herself, though.
She has to realize that the new council of 14 single-member districts will require a management approach that is different from the one she has employed over the past four years.
She must shed her preference for secretive deliberations and practice transparency in government. If she does not, she is likely to be upstaged by new council members eager to respond to voters' demand for reform.
She must strive for efficiency in committee structure and assignments. She must ensure that there are consequences in the event that council members do not fulfill their committee assignments.
As chair of the Board of Estimates, she must make the City Council more relevant in setting the city's spending priorities. The council needs an independent fiscal adviser, which it once had, and an early involvement in the mayor's budget preparations. Otherwise, the council's role in the budget process is reduced to mere rubber-stamping.
She must throw all antiquated rules to the wayside. For example, there is no longer any room - or justification - for "councilmanic courtesy," which has allowed a district to decide on a matter, however controversial, without any challenge from other districts.
Ms. Dixon must also implement two key recommendations of a 2001 commission she appointed to improve council representation:
All committee votes on ordinances should be conducted in public, with a council member voting in person. The current practice encourages absenteeism from committee meetings because members can "vote" by simply signing a draft bill that circulates in offices.
Texts of proposed bills should be accessible on the Internet and at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
As a 16-year elected official, Ms. Dixon is an enigma. She does not take criticism well, even when it is raised about legitimate issues, such as the appearance of nepotism. And although she has good instincts, she has also shown a weakness in following through.
One example: Her good instincts produced the blue-ribbon commission that urged reforms, including a smaller council. But she then dropped the ball. When the downsizing came, it was not initiated by her but by a grass-roots campaign of petitioners. In fact, Ms. Dixon fought against that referendum, known as Question P. But so did her major opponents, Councilwoman Catherine Pugh and Carl Stokes, a health care executive who is a former councilman.
Ms. Pugh has many admirable qualities. She is an appealing and energetic fund-raiser for civic causes. She also has found time to serve on 19 boards, in addition to her council duties.
In her campaign, Ms. Pugh has promised to make the City Council "an independent voice of the community." Unfortunately, she has shown little independence on the council, and she has manifested a tendency to avoid tough decisions. She abstained from voting on the Police Department's controversial request for civil citation powers and the contentious Loyola College proposal to build an athletic field in Woodberry, which is in her district. On the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association board, she abstained from votes that led to the firing of Carroll R. Armstrong, its embattled chief.
Mr. Stokes can be persuasive and impressive when he is focused and serious, and offered many strong suggestions for reorganizing the council. Alone among his rivals, he has vocally criticized Mayor Martin O'Malley's priorities and made the city's children the center of his campaign. This rhetoric seems to wow the crowds in public forums.
But neither Mr. Stokes, who finished second in the 1999 Democratic primary for mayor, nor Ms. Pugh presented a convincing plan for handling the daunting months ahead during which this primary's winner must continue campaigning, collaborate with the current council, and set the stage for a new one.
There is a fourth candidate in the race as well. But the Rev. James Hugh Jones II is a novice and has no full-fledged campaign.
In this field, Sheila Dixon is the strongest candidate. If she adopts a new management style - and she must - she is capable of molding the new City Council into an instrument of responsiveness and power. That's why The Sun endorses her for City Council president.
The Sun's endorsements continue with a look at City Council races in east-side districts 1, 12 and 13.