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Baltimore residents should vote yes on a city administrator | COMMENTARY

Jeanette Witherspoon casts her ballot at the Board of Elections drop box installed on the Morgan State University campus, on W. Cold Spring Lane near Hillen Road. One of the ballot questions is whether Baltimore's mayor should have a city administrator.
Jeanette Witherspoon casts her ballot at the Board of Elections drop box installed on the Morgan State University campus, on W. Cold Spring Lane near Hillen Road. One of the ballot questions is whether Baltimore's mayor should have a city administrator. (Amy Davis)

Former Baltimore mayors Sheila Dixon, Martin O’Malley, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Kurt Schmoke voiced their opposition to a proposed amendment to the city charter adding the position of city administrator to oversee day-to-day operations of city government. The administrator would be appointed and directly supervised by the mayor. The seven largest Maryland counties, run by county executives, have similar positions.

The former mayors appeared to ignore one fact. That is that the city is in a prolonged free fall because of a failure of leadership, a lack of useful long-range planning, the incompetence of many city agencies and corruption. The hole that the city is in is a deep one and the job of digging out of it is too big for one person.

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The amendment should be adopted by city voters. It will allow the city administrator to work on a turnaround plan for city agencies while the mayor works on a turnaround plan for the city.

The skills necessary to fix city agencies and restore services to acceptable levels are not the same as those required to identify and initiate projects and programs best suited to take Baltimore to a brighter and more equitable future. Baltimore’s iconic Mayor William Donald Schaefer paid obsessive attention to the quality of city services. He did nothing, however, to eliminate the phenomenon of “two Baltimores,” one affluent and predominantly white, the other impoverished and largely Black.

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Time is of the essence. Baltimore’s population loss corresponds to its economic decline. Baltimore is now second only to St. Louis in the rate of population decline among American cities, losing 1% of its population each year, according to an analysis by AdvisorSmith.

It is a trend that, if not halted soon, will put a permanent end to Baltimore’s claim to being a great city. Although the forces driving the population decline go well beyond the quality of basic city services, the continuing deterioration of those services is not helping as residents lose hope for improvement.

The first order of business for the administrator will be reintroducing evidence-based performance management to city government, whether by resuscitating CitiStat, which uses data to hold agencies accountable, or other means. The city must be able to measure agency performance against established standards and evaluate managers and supervisors accordingly.

The establishment of the city’s independent Office of Inspector General in 2018 opened a window into city agencies. We see that weak management and supervision result not only in inferior performance but also in corruption. The city is in dire need of a qualitative personnel management system to assure that only competent and ethical managers and supervisors are hired, promoted and retained.

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The mayor, on the other hand, must concentrate on crafting and implementing a plan for undoing the consequences of the city’s history of structural racism and intergenerational poverty. The city is in trouble largely because progress has been too slow in resolving the social and economic problems resulting from that history, including housing, transportation and access to employment and capital. The problems are too massive to be solved on an ad hoc basis.

Long-term social and economic planning in the city has been a mishmash, fading in and out of fashion. The city’s last comprehensive master plan, adopted in 2006, was the culmination of eight years of work and the city’s first new master plan in over 30 years.

The 2006 plan was an impressive effort intended to serve as “Baltimore City’s business plan for coordinating and leveraging City investment, policy and programming to maximize economic opportunity and the quality of life for all citizens of Baltimore over the next 6 years.” Reviews on its success, however, are mixed.

“OneBaltimore” was a project begun by Ms. Rawlings-Blake in the wake of the Freddie Gray riots in 2015 to put together a public-private partnership charged with collecting data and information and “promoting policies and solutions focused on closing health, economic, education, and civic disparities in Baltimore City.” It lasted less than two years and never fully got off the ground.

The city will begin work next year on a new comprehensive master plan. The mayor should jump right in, recruiting state officials, business leaders and the best and brightest the city and region have to offer to help develop a blueprint to revive Baltimore. A priority of the plan should be attracting public and private investment to the city.

There are enough challenges to keep both a mayor and a city administrator busy. The charter amendment is a good idea.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state’s attorney for the county. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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