Baltimore Press

Will Congress Fulfill its Promise?

Will the Baltimore City Neighborhood Congress create a plan for the revival of the city? Or will the event, which was well attended by politi­cians, be forgotten as just another occasion for election year posturing? Only time will tell.
The Neighborhood Congress is a new city-wide umbrella group, which seeks to create an equal partnership between the city’s communities and govern­ment for policy making. It has the support of and commitment from 86 community associa­tions and city-wide coalitions.
It’s first convention was held on Monday, and drew about 1,000 people. Those in atten­dance voted for the Congress’ priorities for rejuvenating the city.

According to Lisa Smith of Citizens Planing and Housing Association (CPHA), the results are being compiled into the Congress’ platform and will be available within a week. “Democracy is not easy,” said Odette Ramos of the four­month process that resulted in the original success of the Congress, “and it is just begin­ning.”

Ramos is a spokesperson and strategist for the Neigh­borhood Congress, and has fierce beliefs about the impor­tance of grass-roots organizing. The day after the convention, she was less concerned about what would become of the group’s agenda than “the white papers,” the forms that people filled out to commit time and energy to that agenda. “We are proposing solutions and demand­ing our involvement [in the decision making process],” she said.

The next step, Ramos said, is to invite all segments of the city — business, religious, political, et. al — to work out the imple­mentation of the Congress’ agenda. It is going to be impor­tant, she said, to capitalize on a shared vision as the Congress developes its “Action Plan.” In the end, those groups are going to be accountable for its suc­cesses or failures.

Where Councilman Martin O’Malley, a mayoral candidate, often harkens to the Boston, Mass., “zero tolerance” model to clean up the city, Ramos points to the Portland, Ore., model, which does not rely on brute police force. “It will never happen without a system in place,” she said, and pointed to a number of indicators such as reading levels at elementary schools, which would be used to monitor the programs that originate from within the consortium of com­munities, businesses, churches, and government that Ramos envisions the Congress will become.

This writer noted that only one politician, Councilman John Cain remained at the Congress to its com­pletion. At the time, Cain lamented that he had to forgo his favorite auc­tion to attend. None of the candidates for Mayor or President of the City Council stayed to the end. The fol­lowing are the responses of the candi­dates who are known to have attended the Congress. Each praised the Congress’ initiative, and voiced sup­port for its goals.
Candidates for President of the City Council:
Councilwoman Sheila Dixon
was taking place; communities know the issues and we need to listen to them.” She said she would be willing to work with the Congress, and that it was a “good opportunity to make sure that politicians are held accountable.” She encouraged those politicians in agreement with the upcoming publi­cation of the Congress’ mandate to “sign it in blood.”
Frank Conaway, Clerk of the Circuit Court, said that the Congress’ mission was “something I’ve been talking about for years. This is a good step toward realizing our goals…peo- ple need to take care of their own neighborhoods, and elected officials need to be reminded that they don’t own their seats, only occupy them for a time. The People own them.”

Nathan Irby, Executive Secretary for the State Liquor Board, displayed a nuanced understanding of the Congress’ decision making process, saying that “the substance will be what comes out of its subgroups…if nothing more,” he continues, “it is an exhibit that it is not as bad here as portrayed nationally.”

Candidates for Mayor:
Councilman Martin O’Malley said the Congress resulted from “a long praised the Congress, saying that she was “encouraged that kind of process deferred desire to turn this city around.” He noted that Baltimore was one of only two cities in the nation with a shrinking population. “This is the renaissance of the American City, and we are missing it.” Referring to the Congress’ upcoming mandate, he said he was “ahead of the curve,” and responsive to the group’s agenda.

Carl Stokes could not be reached for this article, but has voiced support for the Congress in the past.

Bob Kaufman appreciated the Congress’ goals, but lamented that his proposal for a car insurance co-op was not included on its agenda, even though he had lobbied for its inclu­sion. His proposal, he said, was sup­ported by foe people and would reduce premiums by about $300 a year.

Currently, Congress is an inde­pendent wing of CPHA, a city-wide non-profit organization. Whether that status will remain or whether it will become its own entity will be decided soon, probably within the month, offi­cials said.

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