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Baltimore’s new leaders must address the crises first, then the rest. Here’s a to-do list | COMMENTARY

Baltimore mayor Brandon Scott administers the oath of office to new council members during the inauguration in front of War Memorial Plaza Thu., Dec. 10, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Baltimore mayor Brandon Scott administers the oath of office to new council members during the inauguration in front of War Memorial Plaza Thu., Dec. 10, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/Karl Merton Ferron)

A new mayor, City Council President and City Council members took office this week during one of the toughest times the city has faced in decades. Two crises await our new lawmakers that they need to respond to with urgency and expediency — a pandemic and ceaseless murder rate, both of which are taking lives at unacceptable numbers. As Mayor Brandon Scott said during his inaugural speech: “I have hope, but I am not naive to the challenges we face.”

It will take innovative ideas to stop the killings and respond to the economic fallout of the pandemic in a city already beset by high unemployment and rates of poverty, and with a business community that has lost faith in leadership. Voters made it clear in the last election that they wanted change, and our elected officials must live up to that promise. We need leadership to employee big and radical new ideas — and to be bold. We cannot afford to give leaders who fall short a pass or to risk Baltimore falling into a place that it can’t recover from.

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The city is going to need all the state and federal aid it can get to recover from the pandemic, a process that could take several years. To do that we need to mend relations with the state, as Baltimore often seems like the stepchild jurisdiction in Gov. Larry Hogan’s eyes. We also need to employ someone with strong federal connections to identify and take advantage of programs the city may be missing out on. Former mayoral candidate Mary Miller recommended during her run that the city needs to do a better job accessing federal disaster aid, and she is right.

Baltimore’s crime problem is a black eye on the city that must be addressed aggressively. Residents have fled the city because of it, tourists are too scared to come downtown, and businesses have left or contemplated it. Crime is more than a public safety issue; it is an economic development and quality of life issue, as well. The Baltimore Police Department rolled out a new crime-fighting plan recently that called for a holistic approach to crime, but we have heard this song and dance before. This time around, the city needs to truly employ this tactic and make real investments in poor neighborhoods. We must see a drop in homicide numbers and less talk about how it will take time to change.

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Reducing crime is just one of the steps that must be met to make the city attractive for companies to set up shop, or remain, here. When is the last time we have heard the kind of business announcement like that made recently in Baltimore County, declaring that spice maker McCormick & Co. plans to open its largest-ever distribution center in Sparrows Point? Some decisions as of late, including requiring Baltimore to hire back hotel workers, don’t suggest that Baltimore is a business-friendly city. The coronavirus economy is already resulting in a loss of businesses; the city can’t afford to lose more because of its decision making.

The City Council and mayor need to start working now on a strong economic strategy focused on the city’s strengths — health care, research and development, and tourism and hospitality. These industries employ thousands and are likely to last. Any economic strategy should include a strong equity and inclusion component, so that we are building wealth for everyone and not just a few. Transportation also needs to be a part of the plan, so that our residents can get to jobs. The city needs to address the problems of today while planning for what’s to come. A city that is looking forward, while addressing the current crises, will be better prepared to recover after the pandemic.

The city should also start setting its sights on revitalizing the Inner Harbor. Put a plan in place now for when the time is right. Once the jewel of the city, the waterfront attraction that brought tourists for weekend visits and residents and downtown workers out for a bite to eat, has lost its luster and suffers from shuttered businesses and a lack of investment even before the pandemic. COVID-19 has only hastened its decline. When you Google “Inner Harbor,” the first question that pops up is “Is the Inner Harbor safe?” This is not the message we want to send.

We hope the City Council and Mr. Scott will work together as they steer the city out of the pandemic. That did not appear to be the case with Bernard C. “Jack” Young in the mayor’s office. But we also need a strong checks and balances system, given recent corruption scandals. Mr. Scott was among a group of young progressive officials on the City Council who vowed change in government, and together they passed groundbreaking legislation to hold city officials more accountable. He supported many of these same council members on his ticket this election. But now that he is mayor, we need council members to make sure they don’t become a rubber stamp to their ally. Otherwise, their changes will be meaningless. We employ the council to in part hold Mr. Scott accountable.

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Lastly, Baltimore’s leaders must make the city a place for residents to be proud to call home. There is much to love about Baltimore, but it gets undermined by high taxes, not-so-great schools, trash-strewn streets, graffiti-covered buildings and high crime. Fix the basics, and the narrative will change on its own.

These are just a few suggestions. We wish Mr. Scott and the City Council success. If they do well, than so does the city. Baltimore needs strong leadership more than ever now if we have any hopes for a bright future.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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