Initial meeting is open Board handling $100 million grant could close others

January 19, 1995|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Reversing an earlier position, the board that will spend a $100 million federal grant to revitalize large sections of Baltimore held its first meeting entirely in public yesterday -- but served notice that it may close all or part of future meetings.

On Sunday, the president of the board administering Baltimore's federal empowerment zone grant said the public would not be allowed to attend the group's initial meeting, contending that it was not bound by the law that applies to most public agencies and saying members needed to be free to express their opinions.

The following day, the board's agenda indicated that portions of the meeting would be open to the public but that organizational issues and unspecified "other matters" would be discussed behind closed doors.

Yesterday, both Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who appointed the board members, and Chairman Mathias J. DeVito said the board's deliberations would be held mostly in public.

Mr. Schmoke, who had pledged "a very public process" in determining how the money would be spent, said those who portrayed the board as a "glorified secret society are wrong."

Addressing the board at the beginning of the meeting, the mayor said: "The decisions of this board will be publicly known. Everybody will be held accountable for decision-making."

But he added, "If this board is to be effective, you cannot have 100 percent of every meeting, every decision as an open public forum. If you do that, you are going to have a prescription for failure."

Mr. DeVito said the work of "EMPOWER BALTIMORE!" "should be public."

"After all, the money we are using is public funds," he said.

"There will be times because of the nature of some subjects that it will necessary to meet in executive session," he added. "A group like this does benefit from time to time to be by themselves."

Mr. DeVito, the retiring chief executive officer of the Rouse Co., said later he opened up the entire meeting because there was nothing on the agenda to warrant closing it.

Baltimore is one of just six cities to receive the $100 million federal empowerment zone grants, which it plans to use to renew dilapidated areas of East, West and South Baltimore. The grants are expected to generate $225 million in tax breaks for businesses in the zones and to trigger an additional $800 million in city, state and private money. During yesterday's nearly three-hour session in a conference room in a downtown office tower, board members expressed differing opinions about how quickly the group should move to spend the funds.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said he didn't want to "drag heels" but urged the board to make sure programs outlined in the grant application were ones it wanted to fund.

"I can't stress too strongly that you're just not out wasting money," said Mr. Embry, a former city and federal housing official.

But Karen Carter, president of the North Poppleton Homeowners Association, told the board that neighborhood expectations were sky-high. "We have to deal with [them] quickly," she said. "I hope we don't reinvent the wheel."

Mr. Schmoke and Mr. DeVito said the Rouse Co. had given the group 3,000 square feet of rent-free office space in the Legg Mason Tower downtown to serve as headquarters for the staff. "I know the image is that we're going fancy, but it does put the staff in the middle of everything and it is free," Mr. DeVito said.

Claude Edward Hitchcock, president of the group, said interim funding of $50,000 to open the office would be provided by the Baltimore Development Corp.

Mr. Hitchcock said he has asked federal officials to agree to the immediate transfer of the first $50 million installment of the grants to "EMPOWER BALTIMORE!" He said he wanted to invest the money and use the interest to pay for office expenses until the money was needed for zone programs. Current federal regulations prohibit groups from drawing interest on federal funds.

Also, two new members were added to the board: Walter G. Amprey, Baltimore schools superintendent, and Bernard Siegel, head of the Weinberg Foundation. That brings the number of board members to 28.

Yesterday, the board adopted bylaws and authorized the hiring of clerical staff.

It set its next meeting for 4 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, located in the zone in East Baltimore, when it is expected to approve a budget for the staff and begin discussing what programs to pursue.

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