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Dixon settles in for solid start

The Baltimore Sun

Two months ago, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon - then 36 days into her term - walked into a silent conference room on the second floor of City Hall, filled with a dozen cameras and a palpable feeling of uncertainty over how the new mayor would handle her first crisis.

Days before, 29-year-old fire cadet Racheal M. Wilson, a mother of two, had died during a live-burn training exercise in a vacant rowhouse. As early reports of what happened emerged, it became increasingly clear that the Fire Department had ignored safety protocols. Wilson's death was more than an accident. It was also the result of failed policy.

"Mistakes were made, unacceptable mistakes," Dixon said that day in an extraordinarily frank news conference that lasted more than 40 minutes. "It is important that people are held accountable for failure."

As she celebrates the 100th day of her mayoralty today, Dixon's critics and allies point to the handling of Wilson's death as a turning point of her administration - a demonstration that she can excel at what many believe is the most difficult job in government.

Though far from perfect - the administration has so far failed to address the two biggest problems facing Baltimore, crime and education, in a significant way - the early days of Dixon's term have been low-key and productive. As she promised, Dixon generally has maintained the broad policies of her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, keeping many of his staff while simultaneously advancing her agenda.

"It's remarkable," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins political scientist who worked for Dixon's political opponent, Carl Stokes, in the 2003 election for City Council president. "She's had one success after the other, and when there's been crisis, she's handled it very well."

Dixon became the city's 48th mayor Jan. 17 when O'Malley was sworn in as governor. Her record will ultimately be judged by city voters this year when she seeks election to a full, four-year term. The Democratic primary, which for more than four decades has decided the mayor's race in this city, will take place Sept. 11.

"Let's say that I'm pleased. I'm getting responses," said veteran City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who said Dixon became personally involved in a recent effort to make the walkways around Lake Montebello more pedestrian-friendly. "The mayor has helped me in my district on a lot of issues I had trouble getting help with."

Still, Clarke said she is waiting to hear more about the administration's plan to address broader issues in the city.

Dixon seems a long way from her inauguration, when many voters knew her as much for ethical questions as for any legislative accomplishments in her 20 years on the City Council, including six as its president. Last year, she became embroiled in controversy after a series of stories in The Sun showed how she had attempted to steer city work to a company that employed her sister.

On Jan. 11, the city's ethics board dropped its inquiry into the matter and the status of an investigation by the Maryland state prosecutor's office is unclear. Since then, the issue has fallen by the wayside. Her opponents in this year's mayoral race have not yet even brought the issue up publicly.

And that, several experts say, has given Dixon room to be mayor.

She reacted decisively to Wilson's death, sacking the head of the city's fire training academy and ordering an investigation into the exercise. New radio equipment was purchased for the department and several midlevel managers were reassigned. Dixon has continued to support Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., despite calls from some - including the largest fire union - for his dismissal.

Early in her administration, she backed a smoking ban that had been pending in the City Council for nearly two years under O'Malley. In the waning hours of the debate, Dixon lobbied heavily for the bill and signed it two days after it was approved. The Maryland General Assembly, emboldened by the city's action, passed a statewide ban weeks later.

She neutralized the potentially explosive arrest of a 7-year-old boy in March by quickly apologizing for the incident - though the move bruised relations with the Police Department. The boy was handcuffed after he was found sitting on an illegal dirt bike in East Baltimore.

More recently, she surprised political observers by announcing a deal to advance the redevelopment of the city's old retail district - the Westside "superblock" - a project that had stalled for years under O'Malley. In late March, the administration announced an agreement in which the city and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation would swap properties, rather than fighting a court battle over ownership.

Critics, including her leading opponent in this year's mayoral race, say Dixon is making the job look easy by avoiding tough issues. City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said he believes there has been a lack of leadership from the Dixon administration on education and crime.

"A mayor's job is judged on leadership and on taking on tough issues. Being mayor is no walk in the park," Mitchell said. "The two biggest issues are education and public safety. There just seems to be more of the just status quo."

So far, the administration has struggled to define its approach to crime, though Dixon said she will unveil a detailed plan next week. Police appear to be relying less on quality-of-life arrests in favor of focusing on individuals identified as repeat violent offenders.

The department has made 22,369 arrests so far this year, according to information provided by Dixon's office. That is 2,534 fewer than at the same time last year. Meanwhile, the administration has significantly cut police overtime from roughly $1.9 million in December's most costly two weeks to just over $800,000 at the end of March. So far, the city's homicide rate is on pace with last year.

"It's not something that's going to happen overnight," Dixon said. "The arrests are down, which has been a big issue in some communities. Crime has gone down. ... We've identified our most violent offenders, and those individuals have to be constantly tracked. And that's how you get to the prevention of someone shooting somebody intentionally.

"It's a targeted focus on tracking these individuals, being in their face so that they know, 'Look, we're watching you.'"

Dixon has focused much of the last several months on what she calls her "greener, cleaner initiative," an effort to pick up litter in the city - in alleys, on streets and in parks. In early March she announced a streamlining of the city's housing and public works departments, which she said will make it easier to clean vacant lots and medians.

Later this year, the city will launch a public relations campaign aimed at getting residents to pick up trash in their neighborhood.

City officials say they have already reduced from three weeks to two the time it takes to respond to a complaint for a dirty alley or lot. Hundreds of miles of additional streets are being swept each week and, by the end of the summer, Dixon said she expects more trash will be making its way to the dump - a figure the city tracks.

"It really bothers me when you walk out of your door and you drive past a person's house and you see the trash on the grass," Dixon said. "I'm focusing on it. This is what I believe in."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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