The late William Donald Schaefer was a controversial four-term mayor (and later two-term governor). Unabashedly pro-business, but socially progressive, he could be mercurial, stubborn and even childish. But one thing he had an absolute genius for was in pushing, scolding, embarrassing and perhaps even, at times, terrorizing a potentially indifferent bureaucracy into prompt action. Esquire magazine famously dubbed him “Mayor Annoyed” for his obsessive attention to detail. But here was the consequence of his toughness: People living in Baltimore could have faith that someone cared about trash that wasn’t picked up or streets that weren’t cleaned or snow that hadn’t been removed. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the city had its problems with gun violence, underperforming schools and poverty, just as today, but the public trusted that City Hall was making sure nobody drawing a public paycheck was passing the buck or watching the clock or otherwise indifferent to the concerns.
Now, contrast that to the Sept. 20 report from Baltimore’s inspector general showing that a dead rat found in the window of a city-run health clinic in West Baltimore by her staff in December of 2020 — and featured in another critical report a year ago — was still lying there, unmoved, in a follow-up inspection conducted in July. You read that correctly. Despite being specifically, and embarrassingly, told about it, a health clinic left a dead rat on prominent display in the window of a basement supply room (not far from where staff takes breaks, incidentally) for months. Baltimore Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa has since blamed the rat’s lengthy presence on a janitorial contract that apparently did not include “removal of dead rodents,” which has since been revised.
That’s hardly an adequate response.
Baltimore IG Isabel Mercedes Cumming and her staff had other concerns about the condition of the Druid Sexual Health Clinic, including its lack of security cameras, how drugs are inventoried, poor heating and air conditioning systems, an overflowing dumpster and other maintenance problems. Some have been addressed since 2020; some have not. But nothing broadcasts apathy and disregard for public health quite like a mummified rat left perched on a window sill for at least 18 months. You know what Mayor Schaeffer would have done? Well, first, he would have gone ballistic, but second, he would have expected someone in the chain of command to have slapped on a pair of gloves, grabbed that overgrown mouse and tossed it in the nearest trash can. If it required working on a Saturday or even a holiday, so what? The mantra was “Do it now,” not “Do it when the janitorial contract is revised and the lowest bidder gets around to it.”
Baltimore faces a plethora of far greater problems, of course. One of them is a lack of faith in city government to make things better. You know what that rat is? A powerful symbol. Just ask Donald Trump who chose the words “rat-infested” when it came time to dehumanize and debase Maryland’s largest city. Today, it reflects appalling indifference. And how can Baltimore find broad public support to attack poverty and systemic racism, reduce the homicide rate, upgrade housing and health care, improve schools, address addiction or fix failing public infrastructure if people think nobody in government cares? Admittedly, that puts a lot of burden on public employees to go the extra distance (including skipping out on taxpayer-financed trips to Europe whether a particular leadership conference is worthwhile or not). But the upside is that Baltimore has much untapped potential. For those willing to put their backs — and hearts — into the hard labor of making it a better, safer more prosperous and equitable place for all, there is the satisfaction of a job, an important and meaningful one, well done.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.