The Daily Record: A fresh opportunity for transformative leadership in Baltimore

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on November 17, 2016.

In three weeks, Baltimore will inaugurate a new mayor, and eight new city council members will take office, marking one of the most significant transitions in the city’s elected leadership in more than a decade.

Change in government brings about an opportunity to hit the reset button and bring new energy and ideas to address major systemic challenges that the city has struggled with for years. It also provides a golden opportunity for further leveraging some of the positive signs we are seeing in Baltimore, including major development projects, such as Port Covington, which will create thousands of new jobs.

State Senator Catherine Pugh was elected Baltimore’s next mayor by an overwhelming margin and has broad support for her campaign platform. Pugh brings to the job a great deal of enthusiasm and a wealth of solid experience as a legislator at the local and state government levels. But a key challenge that she faces is to transition her thinking and approach to government from a legislative approach to an executive leadership role.

In Baltimore, with its “strong mayor” form of government, Pugh will serve as the symbolic and day-to-day leader of the city. Everything she says and does will carry a high degree of gravitas.

Meanwhile, the newly elected city council members are all new to elective office. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, they will find themselves thrust into governing for the first time. So individually and collectively they have a big transition ahead, too. Foremost is forming a productive working relationship with Pugh and her administration, veteran City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young – and the business community.

Private sector role

The private sector wants to — and can — serve as a vital partner to develop innovative solutions to some of the complex problems facing the new mayor and city council.

While these eight council newcomers may lack legislative experience, they bring youth and an eagerness to help the city tackle tough issues with renewed momentum fueled by fresh ideas and action.

All in all, there seems to be a strong wind filling the sails of Baltimore. It presents an opportunity for the new mayor and city council to move forward on priorities that, if smartly addressed, could bring lasting change to the entire city.

And if there is anything Baltimore seems to be ready for it is continued progress and change.

But change in a big city does not come without a vision from a leader. The leader must inspire others to make the vision a reality no matter the hard work and long days ahead. Inspiration is critical.

Transformative leaders like Ed Rendell and the late William Donald Schaefer provided vision and inspiration for Philadelphia and Baltimore, respectively, when they served as mayors. Such transformational leaders don’t come along often. But as I’ve written and commented before, Baltimore seems to be in need of this kind of leadership at this juncture in its history.

Only time will tell if Pugh and any or all of the new city council members emerge as transformational.

City’s priorities

Thankfully, Pugh and many of the new city council members have said they want to set their sights on priorities for Baltimore that would be well served by transformational leadership.

Pugh, for example, wants to focus on public education and enlisting more community involvement in schools. She also has her eyes on improving and repairing the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and communities — as not only the right thing to do — but critical to addressing violent crime and concerns about public safety.

The mayor-elect also wants to link jobs to those living in neighborhoods plagued by chronic unemployment or low-employment. Other keystones in the vision she is articulating include enhanced transparency and efficiency in city government.

A number of the new city council members also point to education, jobs, transit and public safety as key issues to be prioritized.

These align with priorities that the Greater Baltimore Committee has identified as absolutely critical for the city to move forward. A snapshot of some of these GBC priorities includes:

  • Improving public safety is of paramount importance for many reasons. But none more so than ending the suffering and personal tragedy tied to the violent crime in the city.
  • Making education, workforce training and job opportunities a key focus, especially in communities with high unemployment. It’s worth noting that jobs and economic opportunity provide a proven path away from crime and thus serve as a valuable tool for addressing the public safety issue.
  • Developing the local funding and state support needed to move ahead with major city transportation and infrastructure needs, including an expanded convention center and a new or refurbished arena.

All of these priorities are critical to ensuring the business environment and the city’s economy remains strong, competitive and attractive to employers looking to expand current operations or relocate to Baltimore.

Reason for optimism

These issues might seem daunting and not possible. But there seems to be a sense of alignment among residents, neighborhood and faith-based leaders, and the business community that if Baltimore can remain focused and address these fundamental priorities that better days are ahead for the city and its residents. This optimism toward Baltimore’s future, coupled with the energy, ideas and enthusiasm that accompany a transition, serves as an opportunity for the city to reboot and approach challenges with renewed vigor and determination.

After her win in the general election, Mayor-elect Pugh was quoted by The Baltimore Sun as saying, “It’s important that people get a positive message and feel great about their city. The glass is half-full as opposed to half-empty.”

For the city to be transformed, that seems to be a good way of looking at the future and a good start indeed for the important and hard work ahead.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record. 

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