Housing issues ruled out of order at Hall's hearing

March 09, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When last seen in the full flowering of her political passion, Vera Hall was attempting to obstruct justice on behalf of Jacqueline McLean. That was last June. Two days ago, she attempted to obstruct an investigation into a $25 million housing mess. That was, for some people, the last straw.

"Could we start talking about the issues?" an exasperated Councilman Martin O'Malley asked, about an hour into Tuesday's City Council hearing allegedly designed to look at accusations of overcharging, underperformance and favoritism in the Housing Authority's effort to clean up previously uninhabitable housing.

"Out of order," said Hall, the council vice president who was chairing the meeting.

"If I could, Madam Chair. . . ." Councilman Lawrence Bell said a few minutes later, with the same intent as O'Malley.

"I'm sorry," said Hall, cutting him off. "You're wasting time."

Already, she'd allowed housing chief Dan Henson an hour to defend himself -- minus even a single question from council members -- and that hour would stretch into seven, each hour more numbing than the previous one, long statements from housing officials instead of specific questioning from council members, choreographed witnesses one after another, and the public gradually drifting away.

And, in case anybody should ask, the city of Baltimore likewise drifting away: the population falling fast, and those fleeing leaving behind vacant housing, and the thousands of vacant houses decaying, and the junkies using them for shooting galleries, and the banks no longer wishing to loan money for real estate ventures, and private investors backing off, and this city looking increasingly, as one real estate agent testified Tuesday, "like Bosnia and Beirut."

And he was there as a friend of the Housing Authority.

Tuesday's hearing had a feel of naked fraud about it. It had Vera Hall, who chairs the City Council's housing committee and who fought to have this hearing under her watch, standing in the way of questions that might make the Housing Authority look bad. It had Hall, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's floor leader, blocking questions that might make the mayor or his housing commissioner look less than valiant in their bid to fix up low-cost housing.

And it had the ironic effect of making everybody -- Hall, Mayor Schmoke, Housing Commissioner Henson and his aides -- looking as if they were hiding something, even if they were not.

For Hall, who got herself into trouble last June when she sneaked in and tried to get a judge to throw out the corruption case against former Comptroller Jacqueline McLean, it was a second look at a politician who tries to bend rules without any particular grace.

"This was a series of witnesses stacked for Dan Henson," said Councilman Martin O'Malley, "and only at the very end could we ask questions. It was demeaning, the way Vera gavelled us down. By the time we could ask questions, it was 4:30, and they didn't have the answers to the things we asked. It was a charade."

"It's a tactic that's used," added Councilman Lawrence Bell. "You bring in people and let them speak as long as they can. The whole idea is to stonewall until people get tired. Vera narrowed the parameters on what we could ask, until it became a farce. It's laudable that Henson tried to get things done, but let us take a look at the problems. This was a mockery. It was Vera attempting to cover for the mayor."

"It was a stall," said Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo. "You stall long enough, and the TV cameras go away. The community goes away. I wanted to see community people talk, instead of housing officials telling us what a great job they're doing. Dan Henson's been a plus for this city in many ways, but this hearing was about specific problems, and we couldn't get to them."

"Vera didn't want any questions," Councilman Carl Stokes said. "She was obstructionist. When people tried to get to the heart of the matter, she tried to stop it. We thought, with all the heat about this program, she'd conduct a full and open hearing where we could ask direct questions. Well, she's had her hearing on housing. Now, we want a hearing on corruption. And that hearing won't belong to her."

Yesterday, Hall failed to return repeated calls to her office. Staff members said she was busy. Then they said she'd gone to the dentist and would not return.

For the record, Hall is running for City Council president. So are Bell and Stokes. That's politics.

For the record, also, the city of Baltimore has a ruinous housing problem, which is killing entire neighborhoods. This should not be hidden by politics. Quick, somebody tell Vera Hall.

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