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Council debates citizen board


In an effort to elevate neighborhood associations beyond backyard politics, Baltimore's City Council is working behind the scenes to create a neighborhood board that would speak out on citywide issues.

But the proposal, promoted by supporters as a way to include neighborhoods in broader policy debates, is facing stiff opposition from some council members - and even some residents - who say the board would be little more than an easily ignored new layer of bureaucracy.

The idea, still in its infancy, has sparked a debate over whether neighborhood leaders are more effective when focused on the nitty-gritty issues of a few blocks or if they have something to say about the city as a whole - especially when it comes to development and public safety.

"It would be a voice for groups that don't have a voice now," said Council President Sheila Dixon, who distributed a memo this month to her council colleagues explaining how the neighborhood board might work.

If approved, the measure could strengthen the bond between City Hall and about 700 community groups, some say. Supporters point to such cities as Washington, New York and Los Angeles, which are required by law to check with residents before taking a final vote on certain kinds of legislation.

Dixon's proposal would give her authority to appoint a nine-member board that would draft nonbinding recommendations on council legislation. City agencies, such as the solicitor's office, now prepare similar advisory reports.

Board members would serve four-year terms and would not be paid.

At a recent lunch meeting where the issue came up, council members heatedly questioned why membership would come from regions - such as Central and Northeast Baltimore, akin to the city's nine police districts - rather than council districts. Some asked more quietly why Dixon would appoint the entire board, rather than the council members who represent the 14 districts.

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector wondered if residents are sufficiently equipped to consider citywide policy, noting that the group wouldn't have a staff or a budget to study the implications of proposed legislation. She asked her colleagues to think about the backlash that might occur if the council chose to regularly ignore the citizen board's advice.

"When you see sausage made and you see legislation made, you don't want to eat either one," Spector said. "I see this as something that would frustrate the public."

Still, other cities rely more on their neighborhoods - in some cases, by law. In Washington, two- to 12-member Advisory Neighborhood Commissions give opinions on government programs. In Los Angeles, a new "neighborhood congress" held its first meeting this month and will soon make similar advisory reports.

"We're hoping that this is going to result in a much broader, more participatory type of democracy for the city of L.A.," said Leonard Shaffer, the interim chairman of that city's congress.

In Baltimore, neighborhoods have always been strong institutions, said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson. But part of their strength, he said, is derived from their independence - their local, rather than central, control.

Besides, he said, Baltimore has a board of officials charged with representing neighborhoods.

It's called the City Council.

"You wonder what you're going to hear from [the neighborhood board] that would be different," he said.

Giving neighborhoods more say in their government is not a new concept in Baltimore. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke proposed a similar measure last year, but the council voted it down. Clarke's measure was aimed at giving residents more control over nominating council members when vacancies occur.

Clarke said she is now working with Dixon's office to find a compromise that would let neighborhood leaders decide for themselves whether to form advisory boards.

Among some of the city's more active groups, reaction to the idea is mixed. Several association presidents said their support will depend on how the board is organized, who does the appointing and what, specifically, the body would be charged with doing.

Constance Maddox, president of the Madison East End Improvement Association, said the council members should improve their performance before calling on their constituents to help.

"It doesn't make sense to keep building all these committees and we're not going anywhere," said Maddox, who said her neighborhood is chiefly concerned with cleaning up vacant housing and turning it around for low-income families. "It's a diversion."

Beth Bullamore, president of the Charles Village Civic Association, said some neighborhood groups are now working together - forming regional coalitions when needed. Though she is withholding judgment on the proposal, she said it never hurts for neighborhoods to look at issues beyond their own borders.

"You're in a city, you're not in a gated community," Bullamore said. "Living in the city is a full-contact sport. You either get involved or you get real unhappy after a while."

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