Wrong Place for Secrecy

January 18, 1995

Of all the ways to get off to a bad start, the city's new empowerment zone czar has picked a dandy. The board that will dispense $100 million in public funds and dole out $225 million in tax breaks to business threatens to do much of its business behind closed doors. With public confidence in government at a low point these days, that is putting one of the best things that has happened to Baltimore in a long time under a cloud.

The decision by Claude Edward Hitchcock, who will be chief executive of the empowerment project, initially to close all meetings and subsequently to open them partially, is an act of bad faith. One of the city's strongest arguments in seeking an empowerment grant was the high degree of citizen participation it planned. The board named by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is light on representatives from the four neighborhoods that will be involved. At the very least he should have made sure that community leaders would be fully aware of what the board was doing, even if they did not participate directly in the final decisions.

In defense of his action, Mr. Hitchcock insists the board is not a public agency -- even though it will dispense hundreds of millions of public funds! Not that it would matter much; when Mr. Hitchcock headed a city task force on eliminating billboards he also insisted on secrecy. Whether he is correct on the strict interpretation of the law is beside the point. That would merely prove how narrowly drawn the law is, and how expert city officials have become in manipulating it. People like Mr. Hitchcock who come to government from the private sector need to understand that the public's business is conducted differently. His contention that board members can't be candid if reporters are present is a lame argument that has long since been repudiated in practice.

If Mr. Hitchcock needs a model, he should look back several decades to the urban renewal commission that handled tens of millions of dollars in public funds in Baltimore without the whisper of a scandal. Functioning long before open government became the issue it is today, the commission dealt with everything but personnel issues and land acquisition in full public view.

It is outrageous (and insulting) to suggest that the high-powered business, professional and community leaders who make up the board can't talk frankly with reporters present. The essence of the city's empowerment plan is deep roots in the communities it serves. Nothing will undermine public confidence in it more thoroughly than tarnishing the process with secrecy.

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