The Accountability Reset (Part 2)

Until very recently, two things had been true in Baltimore, at the same, and it didn’t make any sense.

One the one hand, a majority of people believed the city was headed in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, a majority of people approved of the city’s leadership.

These two things really shouldn’t be true at the same time. A city headed in the wrong direction usually disapproves of its leaders. But according to two polls taken a year apart – once in the Spring of 2018, and again right before the Healthy Holly scandal – Baltimore knows it’s headed in the wrong direction but approves of its leaders anyway.

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We’re not happy with the state of the city, but don’t know who to hold accountable for it. It’s like there’s no connection between the city we live in and the leadership we have.

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It seems a lot of us have decided that this building doesn’t matter anymore. We vote with the idea that it does. But deep inside, perhaps what we really believe is that the people in this building aren’t responsible for anything, and that no one’s in charge.

This is our crisis of accountability. It can’t continue. Not in our city. Not with the challenges we have.

To fix it, we need to make this building matter again. We need to restore City Hall’s accountability for our city and its direction.

This won’t be easy. But if it isn’t City Hall’s job to do something about 300 murders a year, then whose job is it?

This isn’t normal.

Obviously if someone polled the mayor’s popularity today the result would be different than it was a month ago – when the mayor had just given a State of the City speech and the new police commissioner had just been confirmed.

Healthy Holly has forced us, finally, to hold accountable the mayor who before the scandal was on the way to re-election – despite too many shootings and too little vision and too little hope and thousands of people voting with their feet and moving out.

But the scandal doesn’t change the fact that our murder rate is baked into the election cycle, part of our new normal, added to the list of things that our city has lived for so long that we’ve stopped believing they can change, and stopped demanding that leaders help us change them.

Our mayor might not be mayor for much longer, but that’s not because of job performance.

And every other city-wide leader remains as popular as ever.

This is the city over which they preside.

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This isn’t just any city. It’s our city. A city where some of best places in America to have a cocktail are just footsteps away from some of the worst places in America to grow up Black.  

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This is what happens when there’s no plan to do something about it. When problems persist for so long that they stop being anyone’s fault and anyone’s responsibility to fix. It’s what happens when we let our leaders convince themselves this is all just an “image” problem.

“What more do you want the mayor to do?”

Yes, our challenges are great, but they’ve led us to confuse culpability and accountability.

We are quick to say that our current mayor inherited the challenges we have today, that neither she nor City Hall is to blame for the many problems we have. We said this about the last mayor too.

And this is true. It would be unfair to think otherwise.

But too many people are too quick to jump from saying “it’s not City Hall’s fault” to “it’s not City Hall’s responsibility.”

They look at the first picture above and say, “what more do you want the mayor to do?”

What they should do is look at the second picture above and see what happens when no one has an answer to that question.

We don’t need to assign fault for all the massive forces that created Baltimore today.

But we do need to assign responsibility for defending the city against those forces – because we’ve not done such a good job of that, as April 2015 should have taught all of us.

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Over the past four decades thirty percent of our city has been swallowed by vacancy and, today, has no functioning housing market at all. It’s not all City Hall’s fault. But whose responsibility is it to stabilize or reverse this trend? Other cities have, even those with none of our strengths, none of our legacy.

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Thousands have fled the city over the past four decades – fifty-thousand in the 1980s, one-hundred thousand in the 1990s, another thirty-thousand in the 2000s, and if we’re lucky, just another twenty-thousand by the end of the 2010s. We can keep saying it’s not City Hall’s fault. But does that mean it’s no one’s responsibility to stabilize or reverse this trend, even though other cities have?

What leaders, and what institutions, are accountable, not just for defending our city against the threats, but for helping our city take advantage of new, positive forces of change affecting cities like ours – as other cities have while we have not?

The polling suggests we don’t know the answer to these questions. It’s time to make the answer.

The Reset

The past year of polling, conducted in the shadow of Freddie Gray, points to the deeper truth: we don’t hold City Hall accountable because City Hall really isn’t in charge.

It doesn’t control the police department.

It doesn’t control the school system.

It doesn’t control the transit system.

A quarter of our city lives below the poverty line, but City Hall gave up direct authority for the social services department long ago – around the time we gave away authority for our port and for the airport and for our transit system.

Our City Hall has but a weak hand in our destiny. It was not always this way. But over time we’ve witnessed City Hall get weaker and weaker, with fewer and fewer resources to tackle our challenges, and we’ve lowered our expectations further and further as a result.

It’s been a vicious cycle, and it’s brought us to a place of zero accountability – where people ask “what more do you want the mayor to do?” in the face of a totally unacceptable status quo that is an insult to our people and our inherent strengths as a city.

Our expectations right now are so low that many are scared of letting our leaders be responsible for anything. Some would laugh at the idea of City Hall being in charge of the services that matter most, like schools, police, and transit. And yet these services have deteriorated under our status quo forever. It’s like we’re damned if we change, and damned if we stay the same.

That’s our catch-22, and perhaps our biggest obstacle to change. Restoring accountability means re-empowering the institution that many of us have stopped believing is capable of real responsibility.

The accountability re-set deals with this problem by creating the conditions for better leadership to emerge.

First step: rebuild City Hall.

That’s why the first thing we have to do is force City Hall to get its house – our house – in order. We do that by taking a 19th Century City Hall and transforming it into a 21st Century organization. We don’t even have to do anything radical – we just have to look to cities that made the changes we need, and do the same thing. 

The heart of our city government is something called the Board of Estimates, and it is the main obstacle to the kind of responsive government that all growing cities have, and that we need – a strong mayor balanced with a strong City Council, working together in a transparent system. Not one of the other cities listed here has a BOE, for good reason:

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Yes, Pittsburgh shrank too, but it could have been worse (same for Cleveland). As for Detroit, the 2010 overhaul of its government may help stop the free fall, when they created a nine-member Council with two at-large members, established an inspector general, a more powerful Board of Ethics, and twice-yearly financial reviews.

We need a strong mayor, and a full-time City Council that elects its own Council Speaker, and an end to backroom dealing.

The reason to get rid of our BOE is because operates under a veil of secrets, inefficiency, and backroom dealing to approve all city spending and contracts. Presided over by the Council President, Mayor, and City Comptroller, the Board has signed off on big contracts to major players in the Healthy Holly pay-to-play corruption scandal. The Board has also stood by and said nothing after the city’s chief auditor – who reports to the Comptroller – quit in protest after being asked to take action she believed was unethical.

We don’t need competing power-centers cutting up the pie in secret. We need a strong mayor, and a full-time City Council that elects its own Council Speaker. The executive develops the budget – a political document that should reflect our values – and submits it to the Council for meaningful review. When it’s approved, the spending called for in that budget, and the approval of contracts, should happen under the watch of people like the city auditor who was just forced out – not the politicians.

None of the changes we need will come from within City Hall. There are too many vested interests protecting the status quo.

We’ll have to make them ourselves through a city-wide ballot initiative in 2020.

Second step: an open primary.

The second thing we have to do is establish an election system that reflects the will of the majority. We cannot have another mayor who squeezes through the current system with just 36% of the vote.

Today our city uses a two-party primary system based on the fiction that we have two parties. With ninety-percent of the city registered Democrats, we have an April primary followed by a meaningless general election six months later – with lame-duck elected officials running the city in the interim.

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Chicago just had an election with a smarter system – an open primary that requires a majority winner, and a run-off in the event there isn’t one. They had a very close primary full of viable mayoral candidates, and then a run-off to pick a majority mayor.

We need the same nonpartisan primary system used in Chicago and the majority of the country’s largest cities (Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Seattle – a partial list). We probably can’t make it happen in time for 2020, but the conversation has to start now, and support for it should be a litmus test.

Third step: get control of our destiny.

The point of reforming City Hall (which we can do now), and fixing the primary system (which will take some more time), is to focus on regaining control of our destiny as a city. This requires a grand realignment of power, re-establishing accountability by re-establishing City Hall responsibility for what matters most. This can turn the vicious cycle of declining responsibility, declining expectations, and declining horizons into a virtuous cycle moving in the opposite direction.

We need a City Hall capable of long-term planning for what our city can be in ten years, with a long-term vision for schools, police and transit.

Only this kind of re-alignment will make possible what’s not happening now – long-term planning for what our city can be in ten years, with a long-term vision for schools, police and transit.

In some places we’ll need regional partnership, which today’s status quo makes difficult because it does not reward leadership willing to think locally and regionally. And no one wants to partner with corruption.

This is a long road, and it won’t be easy. But other cities have done what we must do. They found a coalition, and a leadership, willing to give up the excuses and accept real responsibility. Are we willing to do the same, or should we just keep trying to muddle through with the same old same old? Our most recent census estimate, showing the largest population decline since 2001, should tell us the answer.

Dan Sparaco