The meeting in the conference room might have been an intensive graduate seminar on urban policy. The notebook, heavier than the New York City phone book, bulged with reams of statistics and wisdom gleaned from the experts.
But the students were unique--19 Baltimore City Council members. The Feb. 24 briefing, sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Office of Government Relations, represented an opportunity for council members to briefly step out of the hothouse of moment-to-moment politics and into the cool shade of academic reflection. In the words of Anthony W. McCarthy, chief of staff for Baltimore City Council president Sheila Dixon, it was time to start "thinking outside of the box."
"We have a new mayor as well as new City Council leadership, so this is a great time to reassess our challenges, how they are interrelated and how we might address them," explained Marsha Schachtel, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, who organized the conference.
IPS traditionally has organized briefings for incoming legislators--for the new City Council in 1992 and 1996, and for the Legislature in Annapolis last year. "This is one of the best ways for the university to help policy-makers in our home city and state," commented Sandra Newman, acting director of the institute. "IPS and the City Council are really two sides of the same coin. We study the causes, consequences and remedies of policy problems, while council members deal with these problems every day."
Schachtel, who has had experience working in both state and city government, put together the roster of 29 speakers, who addressed the gamut of urban issues, from economic development and poverty to the new regionalism. There were community activists like Allan Tibbels, who has led neighborhood revitalization in Sandtown Winchester, and well-known city consultants like Camille Barnett, a former city manager brought in as chief operating officer by the Financial Control Board of Washington, D.C., to help untangle that city's operations.
From the Institute for Policy Studies came the presentation by Sandra Newman of new studies on changing property values in Baltimore City neighborhoods, an analysis by David Altschuler of drug policies and an evaluation by Burt Barnow of welfare training programs. Senior fellow Arnold Packer explained career transcripts, and Urban Institute analyst Mark Turner, soon to join IPS, addressed the living wage.
Councilman Norman Handy termed the briefing "very, very useful." According to Handy, the Baltimore City Council is entering a new era, expecting more cooperation between mayor and council--and more influence, he said. The responsiveness of the new leadership, including Sheila Dixon as the new council president, "has put wings under our feet," Handy said.
With her thick blue briefing book comfortably resting on the table in front of her, Lisa Joie Stancil said she found all the information presented overwhelming at times. Stancil, a young lawyer who won election for the first time this summer after walking through her district block by block, said she knows well the people whom she represents. But staying on top of all the issues confronting the City Council is more problematic. "Briefings like this help us to see the whole picture and give me a better sense of what we can do," Stancil said.
Councilwoman Helen Holt, an alumna of the Johns Hopkins School of Professional Studies in Business and Education, soaked up information about neighborhoods and "the concept of sustainability and how to go about saving a neighborhood."
And she said she found Linda Berkowitz, from the Philadelphia Mayor's Office of Management and Productivity, a breath of fresh air. In a straightforward, no-holds-barred style, Berkowitz related the ups and downs of Philadelphia's battle with bankruptcy. "We're faced with a difficult financial situation, not as bad as Philadelphia," Holt said.
The final afternoon session, which was on regionalism, drew leaders from the counties surrounding Baltimore, including council representatives from Harford, Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
The panel featured Maj. Barry Powell, of the Baltimore City Police Department; Barnett, the city consultant; Mary Matheny, director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association's regional campaign; and David Donohoe, executive director of the Allegheny Regional Asset District in Pittsburgh.
Barnett made a case for regionalism based on the new global economy. "The creation of the global economy means that business is structured differently. Multinational corporations are in partnership with city regions. Those regions that get together will be more successful economically and [in] lots of other ways. It is our challenge to think bigger regionally and to think smaller to define our sense of place and community."
That struck a chord with Barbara Samorajczyk, Anne Arundel County councilwoman.
"The solutions to all our problems--environment, transportation, growth--have to come from a regional perspective."
Handy, senior minister at Unity United Methodist Church, added another area for regional cooperation: drug abuse. Handy represents a district that is the site of several open air drug markets targeted by the new mayor for clean-up. "We haven't begun to look at the issue of substance abuse as a regional issue. Baltimore City is impacted not only in terms of addicts and dealers who come to the city from outside [to buy and sell drugs] but by addicts who come to Baltimore to get drug treatment."
Handy and other council members found David Altschuler especially helpful in thinking about the issue of drug policy, now on the front burner of city politics. They invited Altschuler back to give a more in-depth analysis at a lunchtime briefing.
Adjourning for a reception, council president Sheila Dixon said she was ready for the next phase. "Let's make a commitment to continue to dialogue and really expand on the information provided today. It's good to have the information, but now we have to do something with it," Dixon said.