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Five things the next mayor needs to do — now

Today's Democratic primary won't technically determine who will be Baltimore's next mayor, but barring some sort of cataclysmic event between now and November, it might as well have. The last Republican mayor of Baltimore, Theodore McKeldin — himself a former mayor and governor — was elected in 1963, and only barely. Since then, the high water mark for Republican mayoral candidates in Baltimore was Samuel A. Culotta's nearly 28 percent tally against Mayor Kurt Schmoke in 1991, the last of his six attempts to win the city's top job. (The worst showing in that period was also by Mr. Culotta, who died last year — a 94-6 shellacking by William Donald Schaefer in 1983.)

With all due respect to the Republican nominee (or, for that matter, the Green Party's candidate for mayor, who will be determined later), we can be reasonably well assured that whoever Democratic voters pick today will be the next mayor. But he or she won't be inaugurated until December, an unusually long transition period that comes on top of the protracted lame duck period caused by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's announcement last fall that she would not seek re-election.

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There is too much at stake in Baltimore right now for the city to drift through seven months of limbo. The de facto mayor-elect may not have actual power yet, but whoever it is will have a tremendous bully pulpit by virtue of winning the most hotly contested mayoral race in at least 17 years. He or she needs to use it to steer public policy on a number of crucial issues that face the city in the next few months. There isn't a moment to lose. Here are what should be the top five items on the next mayor's to-do list:

Stop the charter amendments

The most dangerous product of the dysfunctional relationship between Mayor Rawlings-Blake and the City Council — particularly Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young — is a series of charter amendments that are on a trajectory to land before the voters in November. While we believe the amendments are generally well intentioned, they are terrible ideas that would make turning Baltimore around all the harder.

The first, sponsored by Mr. Young, would mandate that 3 percent of the city's discretionary budget go toward funding for youth initiatives. In February, the council overrode Mayor Rawlings-Blake's veto and sent it to the voters. It sounds good, but no matter how laudable the goal, it's bad fiscal policy.

The second would strip away the mayor's control of the Board of Estimates. We certainly agree that there's a conversation to be had about making that body a more effective check on a mayor's power, but the particulars of this proposal would be disastrous, particularly as it relates to the budget. This amendment would effectively create three mayors, not just one, when it comes to setting the city's spending priorities. That's unworkable. It passed the council 12-1, with 12 being the number of votes needed to override a near certain mayoral veto.

The third would give the council the power to allocate money to its own favored projects and causes in the budget. Currently, the council can only cut from the administration's proposal. The virtue of the current system — which is similar to those on the state level and in other local governments like Baltimore County's — is that when there is a dispute between the two branches of government, the default is to spend less money rather than more. This amendment, which passed 14-1 and awaits Mayor Rawlings-Blake's veto pen, is questionable on its own, but in combination with the change to the Board of Estimates would put the City Council firmly in control of the budget. That's a recipe for paralysis.

The new mayor needs to work to prevent veto overrides on the latter two amendments. Lobbying the current members of the council (many of whom won't be back next term) could surely help. But another key strategy should be to persuade Mayor Rawlings-Blake to find a way to reinstate the $4.2 million in after school program funding she provided after last year's riots but failed to include in her spending proposal for next year. Putting that money back would be a sign of good faith and would take the edge off the council's defiance of Mayor Rawlings-Blake.

Beyond that, the next mayor has the opportunity to lead a public conversation about the youth fund amendment and either of the other two if they make it on the ballot. He or she should pledge a thoughtful, independent review of the city government's structure and balance of powers — and in the meantime raise money to mount a campaign to ensure the amendments' defeat.

Lead the public conversation on Port Covington

During our endorsement interviews, we asked all the top mayoral candidates for their opinions on Sagamore Development's request for $535 million in tax increment financing for the proposed new Under Armour campus and related development in Port Covington. We didn't get a single straight yes/no answer from the bunch.

That's understandable, given the near universal desire to help Under Armour succeed and the significant degree to which the salient details of the proposed deal remain vague or unknown.

We understand that Under Armour is under time pressure to accommodate a workforce that will soon outgrow its existing facilities in Baltimore, but the prospect of the current council approving or rejecting the deal in the next few months poses problems. Unless the process is radically different from that used for the Harbor Point TIF deal, for example, it is liable to breed resentment among many in the public, particularly in the wake of last year's unrest. And unless the new mayor is directly involved in the conversation and takes a definitive position, he or she will have no accountability for a decision whose effects will last for decades.

The next mayor needs to engage directly and publicly with Sagamore and with city residents to develop a strong public understanding of the details of the deal (good or bad) and to go on the record with his or her recommendation to the City Council. Whether the council takes the advice or not, we need to know where the next mayor stands.

Beat a path to Gov. Hogan's door

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The relationship between Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Gov. Larry Hogan soured in the aftermath of the unrest and got worse after his rejection of the Red Line light rail project. But the governor nonetheless appears to recognize the need for the state to do more to help restore the city and eliminate many of the disparities that caused anger to boil over a year ago.

The next mayor needs to work with the Hogan administration on two initiatives that could help shape the city's future. One is the governor's commitment (beefed up and codified by the General Assembly) to devote more resources to tearing down vacant homes. The city administration and the governor's office need an agreement on how to prioritize the work to both foster economic development and public safety. The new mayor needs to build a consensus within affected neighborhoods on the goals for the newly cleared land and should seek to employ tools like community land banks to ensure continued public input.

The second is the proposed revamp of the city's bus routes. There's no question that the bus system needs an overhaul; it's inefficiencies and design flaws make it profoundly difficult for many in Baltimore's most impoverished neighborhoods to access and keep jobs. But the effort needs to be guided by people who recognize the need for a bus to go all the way down Greenmount Avenue, for example, and not to stop abruptly at 33rd Street. The mayor needs a bigger say in the operations of the MTA generally and should start a conversation about whether structural changes to the agency are needed to ensure it.

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Take accountability for the schools

A growing number of community leaders and elected officials are calling for city schools CEO Gregory Thornton to be replaced. The next mayor needs to take a side in that conversation as part of an effort to make clear that he or she should be judged on the success of the schools. The quality of educational outcomes for city students may be the single most important factor in determining whether Baltimore thrives or declines, yet for years we have seen an arms-length relationship (at best) between City Hall and North Avenue. That can't continue.

The next mayor also needs to get directly involved in the effort to reconcile the dispute over charter school funding. Charters are keeping families in the city and providing opportunities for students who otherwise would have none. We can't afford to let them fail. Meanwhile, the lawsuit by some charter operators over their level of funding threatens to cripple traditional schools. We have no illusion that it will be simple to settle the matter — if Mr. Schmoke couldn't bring the sides together, it must not be easy — but it needs to be done, and the resources and clout a mayor can bring to the table could help.

Build an agenda with the new council

At least six — and quite possibly many more — of the 14 members of the City Council will be new come December, and the caliber of candidates for those seats across the city is among the most encouraging developments in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore. Many addressed similar issues in their campaigns, including the need to reduce economic disparities; raise the level of opportunity in the inner city; improve police-community relations; and make the city government more responsive, efficient and transparent. The next mayor needs to translate those goals into a specific policy agenda with legislation ready to go when the council is sworn in. Baltimore is going to the polls today to vote for change. The next mayor and council need to show right away that they can deliver.

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