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C. Fraser Smith: Bealefeld’s exit underscores City Hall losses

He was pushed.

He hasn’t said it, but Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III was escaping what he felt was an antagonistic attitude in City Hall when he recently announced his retirement. There was family pressure to leave, but the work atmosphere had become intolerable.

And not just for him.

Bealefeld’s departure was merely the most visible sign of a City Hall hemorrhaging talent. Two mayoral intimates — deputy chiefs Kim Washington and Kaliope Parthemos — are credited with making an array of talented individuals, including Bealefeld, feel unwelcome.

“These two people are running the place, and she (Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake) is cruising at 40,000 feet,” said one prominent businessman. This person describes himself as a fan of the mayor but calls what’s happening in City Hall “criminal.”

That sentiment can be heard echoing through the ranks of business and community leaders in the city.

Asked for comment, the mayor’s press secretary, Ryan O’Doherty, said, “The mayor declines to comment on the speculation and is focused on reducing crime, improving public schools and reducing property taxes.”

‘He was getting it right’

Sources say Rawlings-Blake has gone along willingly with the recommendations of her aides, both of whom are close friends.

Meanwhile, a parade of talented people has left her employ. Among them: Peter O’Malley, the mayor’s former chief of staff and Gov. Martin O’Malley’s brother; Christopher Thomaskutty, a well-respected bureaucrat who left for a job at Mercy Medical Center; Thomasina Hiers, Peter O’Malley’s immediate replacement; Sheryl Goldstein, the mayor’s criminal justice chief, and others.

“I feel overwhelmed with the loss of so many good people,” Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke told The Sun.

Skillful public relations management kept the turmoil beneath the radar — until the Bealefeld resignation. And even the impact of that event was blunted initially by the commissioner’s decision to explain his departure terms of family considerations.

Yet Bealefeld’s decision brought focus to the general exodus, particularly in the business community, where the commissioner has many supporters.

“If the police part isn’t right, nothing is right,” a long-term Baltimore business leader said. “And he was getting it right.”

The man was a star in a city beaten down by crime. Murders last year fell below the 200-a-year mark for the first time in decades. Violent crime in general was down. And he was coming down hard on crooked cops with the help of the FBI.

The mayor now faces a period of transition at City Hall and at police headquarters. Transition is a word for that period when no one is really in charge. It’s more troubling when the transition is from firm command and impressive success to — what exactly?

There’s no way to know, whatever the vacant job, if you’ll be getting something better or even as good. There’s a reason for that old saw: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Constant second-guessing

Meanwhile, the mayor has been working to fill another key gap in her leadership team. Last week she announced the appointment of Alexander Sanchez as her new chief of staff. He comes to her from Gov. O’Malley’s administration where he was Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Sanchez replaces someone who had been seen — incorrectly — as a temporary political fix. It was assumed that Peter O’Malley would move on after the last election. In truth, he is a student of government who enjoyed finding ways to make things work and might have stayed on in a more positive environment.

Rawlings-Blake probably could not have changed Bealefeld’s mind. But she might have acknowledged the magnitude of the loss.

The commissioner’s exit was baffling to many. Murders and violent crime were down dramatically and his thanks has been just short of “good riddance.”

His retirement — at age 49 — sounded at first like the statement of a political candidate behind in the polls: He wanted to spend more time with his family. He did, but there might have been less pressure on the home front if he’d been happier on the job.

Concerned friends of Rawlings-Blake say Bealefeld faced constant second-guessing even as his success was heralded. For example, he was chastised for referring recently to young criminals as “knuckleheads.”

It’s important to be careful about language, of course. But this term, used by President Barack Obama among others, was characterized by Bealefeld’s detractors as a racial slur. His minders seemed to be looking for excuses to let him go.

Some have argued recently that Rawlings-Blake simply wants to put her singular stamp on her administration. She’s already handled a daunting blizzard of challenges: Snowmaggedon, alarming budget gaps and tax issues. She handled the Occupy challenge with restraint. And, most recently, she’s taken on the corrosive problem of vacant buildings with energy and imagination.

But finding and hanging onto talent is no less an important marker. In this area, she’s in deficit.

Instead of stability and progress in public safety, instead of a happy team of self-starters, she’s facing the possibility of real uncertainty.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays and other days in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.

 

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