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City Council switches smell a lot like politics

The Baltimore Sun

Last Thursday, when Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was still the chairman of the City Council's Education, Housing, Health and Human Services Committee, he testified before the school board and told its members he'd have some very pointed questions when they came before the council to explain things like sloppy budget reports.

The very next day, Harris was the chairman of the Housing, Health and Human Services Committee. City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake decided that education was so important that it needed a committee all its own, without Harris - who just happens to be running for City Council president - as chairman.

Now some folks might say Rawlings-Blake's move doesn't quite pass the smell test.

"It smells fishy, and the fish is a couple of days old," said Craig Williams, the president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Leith Walk Elementary School in Harris' 4th District. "You can make the reasonable inference that somebody from that board made a call to the president of the City Council."

Oh, these conspiracy theorists! They only doubt the purity of Rawlings-Blake's motives because she previously yanked Harris off the council's Public Safety Committee, where he served as vice chairman. Rawlings-Blake also gave Councilman Keiffer Mitchell the ax as chairman of the Taxation and Finance Committee within days after he announced he was running for mayor. (Some folks in these parts have the sneaking suspicion that Rawlings-Blake and Mayor Sheila Dixon are allies.)

For her part, Rawlings-Blake swears her motives are noble. She decided that the City Council should have a committee devoted solely to education not for political reasons, but for - whip out your hankies because I know the tears are welling up in your eyes - the children.

"I can't believe Councilman Harris believes his position on a committee is more important than Baltimore's schoolchildren," said Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake.

Ah yes, the children! The first line of defense for anybody saying anything whenever there's a dispute concerning Baltimore public schools. Wanted: one school superintendent who will say, "Hey, I can't stand children. But I know how to run a school system. And I can straighten out this mess of a school system you have in Baltimore."

I'm not going to bet the farm that this will ever happen. And I'm betting not many folks buy Rawlings-Blake's explanations that her playing musical committees with Harris and Mitchell isn't politically motivated. Mitchell certainly doesn't buy them.

"It's laughable," Mitchell said of Rawlings-Blake's claims. "If it has nothing to do with politics, the timing sure is poor on each decision."

Not so, Adamec assures us.

"The timing was about the council being fully staffed for the first time since [Rawlings-Blake] became president," said Adamec, who added that there had been a couple of vacant council seats. Once they were filled, Rawlings-Blake assigned council members to committees "where people fit the best."

Williams feels that Harris fits best as chairman of any committee that has the word "education" in its title.

"I understand the logic of making [education] a separate committee," Williams said. "I don't understand why he [Harris] wasn't given that chair. Councilman Harris has always been a strong supporter of Leith Walk Elementary School and the children of the entire Baltimore City school system."

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, sent Rawlings-Blake a "report card" on that system this week. The branch gave Baltimore schools F's for grades six through 12 for Maryland School Assessments and High School Assessments for 2006. Cheatham also weighed in on the Harris controversy.

"We aren't getting into the politics between Rawlings-Blake and Harris," Cheatham said. "Our concern is that this is the second instance of a councilman being removed [from a committee] for one reason or another. We need to be notified as a community organization of who we should be in contact with. What we're really asking is that there be some kind of transparency. We think she owes it to the community and the NAACP to let us know what she's doing."

Adamec responded:

"The change in committee assignments has always been a function of the council president. That's not something we would hold hearings about." But, Adamec added, Rawlings-Blake would "welcome" the input of Cheatham and the NAACP concerning education in Baltimore.

That input won't include those questions Harris had planned for school board members. For Williams, that smacks of politics.

"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck," Williams said. "This walks like a duck; it quacks like a duck."

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