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Mayor's race on the issues: Good government

Baltimore voters may be looking for an inspirational leader when they go to the polls on April 26, and that is no doubt a crucial role for the next mayor at a time of discontent but also great possibility in the city. But they need to consider the fact that they are hiring someone to run a $2.6 billion enterprise with more than 13,000 employees that must answer to the public every day. How well they do that not only determines whether the trash gets picked up and potholes get filled but whether the city can find ways to deliver services more efficiently and free up additional funds for other priorities, like investments in youth or tax cuts — and whether the city does so in a way its residents trust.

It is difficult to evaluate the candidates on their ability to manage the city (with the exception of course of former Mayor Sheila Dixon). But we can judge the ideas they have put forth for improving the operations of Baltimore government. Here are some of the highlights.

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake cannot be said to have been an enthusiastic champion of the push in recent years to require regular, comprehensive audits of city agencies, but the idea is taken as a given by those trying to replace her. Give credit here to Councilman Carl Stokes, who put the issue on the map several years ago. He, like his competitors, wants to speed up efforts to audit all city agencies and to make the results public. Mayor Rawlings-Blake also failed to make effective use of CitiStat — the award-winning government performance measurement system implemented by former Mayor Martin O'Malley. During her tenure, the agency's budget doubled but its activities languished as it cut back on the regular monitoring of issues that was its central purpose. Many of the candidates have made revitalizing CitiStat an issue, with Councilman Nick Mosby perhaps the most vocal. An engineer by training, he advocates a substantially beefed-up use of data and statistics to improve performance and predict problems before they occur.

Businessman David Warnock is championing the idea (also expressed by Mr. Stokes) that Baltimore should employ a city manager or chief operating officer, so that the mayor could focus on big-picture vision issues while someone else tends to the nuts and bolts of daily governance. Such a role is not as common in cities with strong mayor systems of governance, like Baltimore's, but one need look no further than Baltimore County, with its strong executive and county administrative officer, to see the value of such a position. If anything, the county may be too focused on efficiency and cost containment, and that's a problem the city could use to have.

Ms. Dixon says she would focus on improving customer service in city government. (Sen. Catherine Pugh does as well.) She also wants to establish a task force to study the structure of city government, to determine whether agencies should be combined or realigned — a worthwhile exercise, certainly, and one that has added urgency given the past year's scandals in the housing department. And she says she would put a premium on recruiting top talent into city government — and would jettison those who don't perform. Here, she has definite credibility, as she got generally high marks for bringing together a talented leadership team in City Hall during her administration.

Besides including commitments to audits and CitiStat, Ms. Pugh's accountability and transparency plan raises the issue of procurement reform, advocating steps to eliminate favoritism in the process.

When it comes to innovative policy, activist DeRay Mckesson takes the lead among the candidates. In addition to calling for more audits and better use of CitiStat, he advocates creating racial impact analyses for all city ordinances and establishing a participatory budgeting system. The former has the potential to become a cumbersome requirement, but the latter is an interesting idea. Participatory budgeting can take a number of forms, but the idea is to inform residents about the choices the city has to make and to engage them in setting priorities. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has conducted annual exercises to seek citizen input in balancing the budget, but Mr. Mckesson is suggesting going farther, for example by emulating a Boston program that engages youth in determining how to allocate a small portion of the capital budget.

Overall, attorney Elizabeth Embry has the best plan when it comes to transparency and accountability. She builds on others' ideas about performance metrics by promising more open data and agency score cards so residents can easily monitor progress. She calls for an open database of all city contracts — something the federal and state governments already provide — and she proposes a dedicated office to ensure prompt and thorough responses to public information requests. But what makes her plan truly stand out is the inclusion of proposed ethics reforms. She rightly criticizes the reforms enacted after Ms. Dixon's conviction and forced resignation as insufficient, and she calls for increased disclosure of gifts and campaign contributions by those who do business with the city, a comprehensive review of city ethics law and the functions of the ethics board and improved public access to officials' financial disclosure forms. Ensuring that the city government is well managed is essential, but it's not enough unless voters believe it's honest, too.

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