Schmoke image tarnished after Gillece resigns


October 02, 1991|By PHILIP MOELLER

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has arrived -- business executives and development professionals are loathe to openly criticize him for fear of retribution. This milestone of accumulated power shows signs of further enhancement in the form of incipient cronyism. Not bad for just one term.

Last week's resignation of David M. Gillece, the city's chief economic development official, puts a lot of pressure on Mr. Schmoke's unblemished facade. No one is suggesting that the mayor has done or condoned any inappropriate behavior. But Mr. Gillece, his friends say, was forced out under circumstances that make it appear the mayor is playing favorites.

The Shapiro and Olander law firm, already caught in the appearance of a conflict of interest for being home to some of the mayor's closest advisers and the recipient of a growing volume of city business, is a player in Mr. Gillece's drama as well.

The firm was brought in at the mayor's request to work on the merger of the economic development agencies Mr. Gillece headed -- Baltimore Economic Development Corp. and Center City-Inner Harbor Development -- and handle land disposition for the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration.

Then, following reports of friction between Mr. Gillece and his new attorneys, he resigns and is succeeded by Honora M. Freeman, a long-time administrative aide in Baltimore County government who was on the law firm's payroll from 1987 to 1989 before becoming special assistant to Mayor Schmoke.

Mr. Gillece has been a good salesman for Baltimore and believes in his work. He earns special Purple Hearts for doing this during near-depression conditions in the development community and working for people who simply don't know much about economic development.

Mr. Gillece, a statesman to the end who clearly would like to live to ply his trade another day, declined to discuss reasons for his departure. Clint Coleman, Mr. Schmoke's press secretary, said that Mr. Gillece's departure was not requested or orchestrated by the mayor.

"He really did resign," Mr. Coleman said. "The timing is not by accident," he added. "He indicated to the mayor during the summer that he would like to see the merger through and then move on." According to Mr. Coleman, Mr. Gillece preferred to wait until after the Sept. 12 mayoral primary to leave, thus avoiding a possible political issue for the mayor's opponents.

Mr. Coleman bounced additional questions off the mayor and later said Mr. Schmoke chose not to respond to anonymous criticisms.

The lasting story here might be that the rearranging of the city's economic development efforts -- one of local government's most crucial responsibilities -- could reduce future economic opportunities for some of Baltimore's citizens.

Baltimore's prowess in public-private partnerships has often allowed the city to be a glorious overachiever in local development efforts, producing economic rewards for citizens and businesses alike.

With dwindling public dollars and scarce private resources, Baltimore's development efforts are facing critical tests, including specific downtown projects and implementation of a far-reaching development plan that would touch all facets of the city's core.

Ms. Freeman, competent though she might be, is simply not seen as the kind of stellar development specialist Baltimore needs or deserves right now. Further, her appointment was made with precious little, if any, communication with business leaders, many of whom feel less and less like partners with each perceived slight from the Schmoke administration.

City officials bristle at suggestions that they need approval from business leaders, but it's participation, not approval, that is being sought. Such discussions are the everyday foundation of partnerships, and wise leaders look for reasons to talk and to shape consensus.

This erosion -- of skills, communications and partnerships -- is bad for everyone. Baltimore can't afford it.

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