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Time for Baltimore to elect leadership worthy of its people

Bernard C. "Jack" Young, president of the Baltimore City Council, speaks to the media in Annapolis. Young will take over as ex officio Baltimore mayor as Mayor Catherine Pugh takes a leave of absence.  (Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun video)

Many in the Baltimore region and beyond see the scandal in City Hall as further evidence that our city is hopelessly — and maybe irretrievably — lost in chaos and dysfunction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The people of Baltimore are neither lost nor dysfunctional. Critics often focus almost exclusively on Baltimore’s many challenges, including the high homicide rate and crisis in leadership, and pay precious little attention to the resilient people in every part of our city working daily to educate children, create safe communities and help those in need. These are the people driving up graduation rates and test scores despite chronically underfunded schools. These are the people making us a national leader in minority entrepreneurship and startups despite city funding for billionaire developers. And these are the people fueling the Baltimore Ceasefire movement despite the chaos at the top of the Baltimore Police Department and the atrocities of the Gun Trace Task Force.

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Unfortunately, the collective brilliance and effectiveness of Baltimore’s people have not been matched by its leadership. Two of the last three mayors were forced to resign, and the third, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, opted not to run for re-election after the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray.

But there is reason to believe that we are on the precipice of a genuine turning point. The resignation of Catherine Pugh as mayor and the City Council’s proposed charter amendments aimed at reforming city governance present a unique opportunity to usher in a new era of leadership that is effective, transparent and responsive to the people it represents.

The City Council, in particular, gives us ample reason for optimism. In 2016, Baltimore voters elected eight new council members, making it the youngest and most reform-minded council in a generation. Since then, the council has pushed an ambitious, community-focused agenda, passing the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the Baltimore Clean Air Act, the Water Taxpayer Protection Act, the Transparency in Lobbying Act, and, just last month, a bill prohibiting landlords from rejecting people who would pay rent with government housing vouchers.

Days before Ms. Pugh resigned, council members proposed a series of amendments to the City Charter that would not only provide a mechanism to remove a mayor from office but shift the balance of power in City Hall. Historically, mayors in Baltimore have had much more power than their counterparts in most other American cities. The council’s proposed amendments, which are subject to voter approval in 2020 elections, would shift more of that power to the council — whose members are generally more directly in touch with constituents. Although some of these amendments are, as Councilman Bill Henry admitted, “wonky,” they have the potential to be genuine game-changers, shifting power downward, closer to the people of Baltimore, who have proven time and again to be our greatest strength.

Of course, we will also elect a mayor in 2020. Given the recent scandals in City Hall, there is reason to believe that issues of accountability, transparency and good governance will be among voters’ highest priorities as they consider the candidates. Open Society Institute-Baltimore, where I work, has committed itself to “supporting an election process in which the voices and priorities of Baltimore residents are paramount.”

In 2020, we have the opportunity to elect leadership worthy of the great people of Baltimore. I urge all of us to seize the opportunity to align community and leadership with the common goal of building a safer, more equitable and more prosperous city.

Evan Serpick is Director of Strategic Communications for Open Society Institute-Baltimore. His email address is evan.serpick@opensocietyfoundations.org.

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