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C. Fraser Smith: A standoff nobody wins

Do we really have time for silly bits of political theater?

Don’t we want a smart, dynamic, on-the-move City Hall? Wouldn’t it be nice if the clock moved faster, bringing our new leadership on board?

I ask because, even as the nation focuses on the Freddie Gray trials, our leaders engage in petty personal politics.

The current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and the city council president, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, have allowed their differences to move us into a different quadrant of the national spotlight – not in a good way.

Young and Rawlings-Blake say Baltimore stands on the brink of a shutdown.

These two leaders are allowing a $4.2 million youth program  budget item to take us to the edge.

If he doesn’t get his way on the youth programs, Young says, the council will refuse to pass a new budget. If the council is unable to find a compromise, he says, he will allow Baltimore to look like the dysfunctional U.S. Congress.

There, you know, the government comes close to shutting down every year. Conservatives say they are willing – even happy – to see government out of business. Various emergency forays into obscure cookie jars scrape enough nickels and dimes to save the day. Too bad. The  shutdowners deserve the shame and embarrassment that might come from shutdown-driven results.

Does Baltimore have to copy that comedy?

In Washington, serious sums separate the sides. In Baltimore, we are talking pin money, rounding errors, chump change: $4.2 million in a $2.6 billion operating budget.

If the mayor cannot find this money she simply doesn’t want to find it. This, of course, is clear to the citizenry. If she were running for re-election, the faceoff would not be happening.

Her lame-duck position on the $4.2 million question might well have been settled long ago. After the Gray calamity, Rawlings-Blake put the money in her budget.

Some Baltimore young people believe their upheaval activism won attention from City Hall. So, perhaps, the mayor thought better about appearing to buckle in the face of street protest.

Another guess: She and Council President Young have squabbled over money for young people’s programs for years. And now, on her way out, the mayor says she can’t find the money yet again.

No one, certainly not Young, has any doubt that Baltimore faces chronic financial problems. Budget shortfalls are an annual reminder of this city’s difficulty meeting Baltimore’s basic needs.

The city’s financial problems are so severe that major businesses have been stepping up to fill the gaps. City Hall did almost nothing to respond after the Freddie Gray tragedy unveiled an appalling absence of effective health care and decent housing. Effective job development efforts need strengthening as do programs that help the large numbers of ex-offenders.

And now, Rawlings-Blake chooses to take back some of the youth program dollars granted earlier. Surely the mayor knew cutting this money from her budget would suggest a lack of concern for young people. She’s been willing to accept that criticism.

Young has spent considerable energy over several years suggesting changes in the structure of city government. He would strengthen the relatively powerless council at the mayor’s expense.

His proposals have, so far, been set aside. But his arguments – that the city’s suffering neighborhoods get less attention than they need – deserve support.

If he is to succeed in overhauling the structure, Young may hope he can use this $4.2 million fracas to strengthen his position.

Rawlings-Blake may hope to leave office with the current governmental structure intact. Again, who knows what she hopes to gain in this standoff.

The citizens will be shaking their heads over the obvious failure of their leaders to make their city seem competent and even progressive. You’d think these elected officials would have the political skills to avoid an embarrassing public display.

There may be help from a new mayor and many new members of the council. We just have to hang on for five or six months ‘til the new team takes over.

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