Empowerment panel wants zone of privacy

January 17, 1995|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Despite pledges of openness, the board that will spend hundreds of millions in federal and state money to revitalize large sections of Baltimore appears to be set to operate as much in secret as in public.

When the 26-member board administering the city's federal empowerment zone grant holds its first meeting tomorrow, it will do half its work behind closed doors.

The secrecy startled a variety of elected officials not directly involved in the empowerment zone board.

Under provisions of both state and federal law, public bodies may meet in closed sessions only to discuss a limited number of subjects, including pending lawsuits, personnel issues and the marketing of public securities.

Instead, the local group will discuss certain organizational issues and unspecified "other matters." Officials were not more specific.

And despite the state requirement that a public body give "reasonable advance notice" of meetings, the first official notification was a fax sent yesterday afternoon to the local media -- several days after officials first were asked about the pending session. There was no publicly advertised notice of the meeting.

Originally, the board planned to exclude the public from the entire meeting.

Claude Edward Hitchcock, president of "EMPOWER BALTIMORE!" said Sunday that the public and press would not be allowed to attend the meeting at his downtown law offices because the board members needed to be free to say what was on their minds.

"We're not an agency of city government," he said. "I don't think we are subject to the same restraints and restrictions as a public agency."

"We have to have people be cozy and comfortable," Mr. Hitchcock added. "It's difficult to know how people can be candid if the press is there."

Yesterday morning, however, after talking to board Chairman Mathias J. DeVito, Mr. Hitchcock said that he had changed his mind and agreed to open portions of the board's meetings. The closed parts of the meetings will include "any number of matters," including personnel issues and possibly budget considerations, he said.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who appointed the board members, had pledged a "very public process" in determining how millions of dollars in public funds would be spent to renew dilapidated areas of East, West and South Baltimore. A $100 million federal grant is expected to trigger more than $800 million in city, state and private money.

"There's not going to be anything hidden about the process. . . . Everything will be open for scrutiny and review," Mr. Schmoke said two days after Baltimore received word that it was one of just six cities nationwide to receive the coveted grants that also include $225 million in tax breaks to businesses.

Last night, Mr. Schmoke's spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman, said the mayor recognizes that the board has to be "accountable to the public in using the funds."

"However, the mayor feels that satisfying the demands of public accountability does not mean that every meeting has to be open to the public," Mr. Coleman said.

Mr. Coleman added: "In a nutshell, I don't believe he considers this a major issue. It's clear that he considers it more important that the board gets its work done and this program implemented."

Several city politicians were sharply critical of the board's stance -- as well as the site of the meeting.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke gasped when told the board initially intended to close its meeting. She said it should definitely adhere to the requirements of the state's open meetings law.

"It's a matter of the spirit of the empowerment zone," said Ms. Clarke, who has announced plans to challenge Mr. Schmoke's bid for a third term this year.

"I think [the first board meeting] should not be in a downtown law office but rather out in the empowerment zone itself," she added.

Council colleagues Martin O'Malley and Lawrence A. Bell III agreed.

"I think when you're talking about that much public money, you ought to have open meetings," said Mr. O'Malley, a 3rd District Democrat.

Mr. Bell, a Democrat whose 4th District includes part of the zone in West Baltimore, added, "This administration has often been mired in an ivory tower approach to dealing with the people. I would hope this is not a continuation of that."

Timothy D. Armbruster, president of the Morris Goldseker Foundation and The Baltimore Community Foundation, said he needed to know more about how the board would operate.

"For sure, this board's going to be accountable, I know that," he said.

Mr. Hitchcock, who is leaving his law practice at the end of the month to assume the day-to-day management of the empowerment zone, said yesterday that his decision to change his mind and open up part of tomorrow's board meeting to the public came after he reconsidered the subject overnight.

Mr. DeVito, the retiring chief executive officer of the Rouse Co., said, "We talked it through. It's not me overruling [Mr. Hitchcock]."

"The public should have access," he added. "Still, there ought to be the opportunity to say some things privately."

Mr. DeVito said he was "not sure" yet what those things should include. "Let's have our first meeting," he said.

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