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Baltimore city-county cooperation may be controversial, but it’s still good policy (and has been for decades) | COMMENTARY

Center Stage opened in its new home in December 1975, with Mayor William Donald Schaefer (left), State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein (center) and Baltimore County Executive Theodore Venetoulis (right) sharing ribbon cutting honors. (Harris/Baltimore Sun archives)
Center Stage opened in its new home in December 1975, with Mayor William Donald Schaefer (left), State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein (center) and Baltimore County Executive Theodore Venetoulis (right) sharing ribbon cutting honors. (Harris/Baltimore Sun archives) (HARRIS/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

When I was elected Baltimore County executive, my first call was from William Donald Schaefer. I had run his campaign for Baltimore City mayor in 1971, and we remained close friends. We had lunch at Sabatino’s in Little Italy. Schaefer had been mayor for three years; I had been county executive for a little over three weeks.

“The city can’t make it alone,” he said. “You guys have the money, we have the problems. We’ve got to work together.”

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From a policy perspective, strong city-county cooperation was a no-brainer. Politically, though, it was a troublemaker.

We decided to move cautiously — careful to avoid anything that might suggest regional government, arousing the ire of city residents reluctant to lose political power to the growing suburbs, or those in the county reluctant to share their growing power with the city.

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We initiated a city-county school chorus performance at the Lyric with the mayor and I introducing the program. We organized a city-county softball team, often playing our games as a warm up to the Orioles at the old Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street (Schaefer often performed a colorful Earl Weaver rant with the umpire). We would dine together, alternating city-county restaurants. At Christmastime, we shopped together in Hampden and Towson (I grinned when I heard current Mayor Brandon Scott was criticized for shopping in Baltimore county).

Our department heads met periodically, and we encouraged police and fire responders to cross geographical lines when it was necessary. The county built a summer home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Oregon Ridge. We increased the county’s contribution to regional cultural institutions from $25,000 when I started to $1 million when I ended. We initiated the Big Seven to include other urban counties across the state.

Not all efforts went smoothly. When we lowered county taxes while the city was raising its taxes, I was the friendly target of expletives from Schaefer. When the County got a AAA bond rating, Schaefer sent a note — “Why didn’t you get one for me?” The effort to restore a professional basketball franchise to replace the Bullets fell through when owners refused a city location that Schaefer and I agreed was essential for city moral.

What we failed at basketball, we made up in football. In 1975, The Baltimore Colts owner threatened to move the team unless it got a new practice field. Schaefer could not find land in the city and asked me to locate a large enough property in the county. We built a first-class practice facility in Owings Mills that kept the Colts in the region for another decade.

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A footnote — a few years later, The Colts fled; Schaefer sued. He threatened eminent domain. The Colts owner called me. “Schaefer hates me. He won’t talk to me. I know he trusts you. Tell him I want to end the lawsuits. I’m willing to negotiate.”

At that time talking to Robert Irsay was a hanging offense. But I took the message to Schaefer. After 20 minutes of a Mt. Everest level of anti-Irsay expletives, we finally agreed to take advantage of his offer. For a few weeks, Irsay’s lawyer and I secretly shuffled between Washington and Chicago to hammer out an agreement. Irsay agreed to return all the Colt memorabilia from the bygone era. He would compensate the city for its legal expenses — nearly a million dollars. He would turn over the sports complex to the city (later to become the location for Stevenson University). We sparred for days over two essential items. Finally, Irsay agreed to return the Colt name (if the franchise was granted within five years) and to vote for a new Baltimore franchise.

A regional transportation system was a major effort. Gov. Marvin Mandel offered to build a regional system from the city with spurs to Essex and Dundalk, to Arbutus and Columbia, to Towson and Hunt Valley, and to Owings Mills along the Northwest Expressway. To do it, the governor insisted on local political support. Schaefer and I, along with the senators from the central county and the northwest, agreed to the program. The Anne Arundel County Executive and state senators from the east and west side did not — which explains the truncated system.

Regional cooperation is not easy. But even with failures and compromises, the enduring result allowed each succeeding county executive and mayor to build on that foundation. After Sparrows Point was shuttered, as a Maryland Port commissioner, I worked with County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to create a Sparrows Point Partnership that would lead to Tradepoint Atlantic’s remarkable redevelopment of the iconic steel mill — a classic example of regional engagement.

No doubt there are staggering issues ahead. Water and sewer infrastructure is enough to defy experts and consume budgets. The creeping jurisdictional spread of economic and cultural issues are controversial and contentious. Today, we are blessed with a generation of young leaders in Baltimore city and county (as well as surrounding counties) who realize the importance of revitalizing our urban center. Regional boldness is controversial, but today it is less contentious. It is also visionary and necessary.

Ted Venetoulis (Ted.Venetoulis@gmail.com) was Baltimore County executive from 1974-’78.

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