The right priorities for mayor

It's been less than a week since Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake learned that she would become mayor next month, and it was clear in an hourlong meeting with The Sun's editorial board Monday that she does not yet have all the answers for solving the major challenges the city faces. To her credit, she doesn't pretend to, either. She gave definitive answers where she could -- for example, that she plans to retain Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III -- and otherwise conveyed a solid approach to setting priorities and making public policy. Under the circumstances, that is the best we can hope for.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake is not a larger-than-life presence in the way a muscle-shirt-clad, guitar-strumming Martin O'Malley was when he was first elected, and she's not the blunt, sharp-edged fighter that Mayor Sheila Dixon is. The comparison to those two has led many to conclude that Ms. Rawlings-Blake's calm seriousness reflects disengagement. That does not appear to be the case. She thinks before she answers and speaks carefully, but she is not equivocal.

In particular, she was clearer than just about any elected Democrat in the state in condemning the actions that led to Mayor Dixon's resignation. "I think it's pretty obvious," she told The Sun's editorial board Monday. "A jury of her peers felt strongly that she acted outside the law. That speaks for itself." She did not condemn State Prosecutor Robert Rohrbaugh for accepting a plea deal that will leave Ms. Dixon with her $83,000-a-year pension, but she pledged to seek changes to make elected officials' pensions less generous in the future. "I understand people are very upset about the prospect of a lifetime pension," she said. "I get it."

Ms. Rawlings-Blake said she has been looking into the city's ethics laws already and intends to pursue reforms to tighten them up. In particular, she said the current composition of the Board of Ethics, which is controlled by mayoral appointees, needs an overhaul to add independence. That's admirable considering she soon will be the one making the appointments. Likewise, her desire to cut back on the city's cable channel, which is now little more than a glorified infomercial for the mayor, has not changed with the prospect that she is the one whose face would be on TV.

On the budget, Ms. Rawlings-Blake is rejecting the notion of across-the-board cuts. That is wise, because such an approach reduces the successful just as much as the wasteful. She leaves open the possibility that the city could seek new revenues -- such as a higher tax for vacant properties -- but she said a general property tax increase should be the last resort.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake did not give many specifics on where she would seek savings but indicated that she has misgivings about some of Ms. Dixon's cuts. Ms. Rawlings-Blake said she believes rotating firehouse closures are better than permanently shuttering stations, but she said the department was near the breaking point and that she would seek to minimize that practice.

On crime, Ms. Rawlings-Blake argued for a middle path between zero tolerance and community-oriented policing, saying she favors Commissioner Bealefeld's approach and would seek to continue productive partnerships with state and federal officials that have led to recent reductions in violence. In particular, she praised the federal Exile program that sends gun offenders to prison out of state, saying the threat of such severe punishment is having an effect on changing behavior on the streets.

Education is a particular passion for the mayor-to-be, and she said she is strongly supportive of city schools CEO Andrés Alonso's reform efforts and of the expansion of programs such as Teach for America. We hope that between her position as mayor and as the daughter of the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings -- a leader on education policy in the General Assembly -- she might become an effective advocate in Annapolis for the reform agenda state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick is pursuing as part of the federal Race to the Top program.

And on slots, Ms. Rawlings-Blake said she would do what it takes to make sure the prime piece of property secured by the failed bidders for the city's slots license would be available for new proposals. That may be difficult and expensive, given a previous development group's rights to the property, but it is vital to the city's long-term fiscal health.

The weeks ahead will be crucial as Ms. Rawlings-Blake decides which members of Mayor Dixon's administration to keep and which ones to replace, as she crafts a budget and argues for the city's priorities during the General Assembly session in Annapolis. We will soon have a good sense of how effective she will be in making the transition from the legislative branch to the executive. But two things that can be judged now are her temperament and her priorities, and those appear to be sound.

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