Scandal, political schemes: same story, new chapter

February 01, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Let's see if we have this straight, because our favorite newspaper, normally given to the strictest rules about truthfulness and fact-finding, has been telling us the most astonishing things lately and asking us to believe them, to wit:

1.) There's another scandal in the city's housing department, and the man who picks himself to get to the bottom of it is Mr. Truthfulness himself, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson.

2.) The mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, floats a plan to dock underpaid teachers 10 days of pay to bridge a $23 million gap in the school budget -- only months after this same mayor, even then facing serious budget problems but worried about an approaching election, gives these same teachers a 5 percent raise he clearly can't afford to give them.

3.) Members of the Baltimore City Council who are black decide to hold a weekend meeting about problems in their city and find nothing wrong in explicitly barring certain council members for committing the political sin of being white.

Hard to believe, no?

So let's look at them, piece by piece.

1.) In a city of thousands of rotting houses, a senior housing inspector dodges repeated complaints about hideous conditions at certain rental properties -- because he owns those very properties. This is known as a conflict of interest. How could such a thing happen? Well, a midlevel housing official somehow OK'd an unofficial policy allowing inspectors to own rental properties.

The response of Commissioner Daniel P. Henson? He is reported, by The Sun's Jim Haner, who uncovered the housing violations during a three-month investigation, to be dumbfounded. He didn't know about the policy. He didn't know about the violations. He will investigate them.

This, from the same Henson who still hasn't explained how $25 million was spent by his department for a public housing cleanup that launched accusations of overcharging, underperformance and favoritism.

This, from the same Henson who stepped before a City Council hearing designed to investigate such no-bid spending and hid behind the skirt of Vera Hall, who chaired the meeting and, astonishingly, refused to allow questioning of Henson.

This, from the same Henson who told a reporter that the $25 xTC million had to be spent quickly, since it was an emergency situation in which public housing apartments had become unlivable. No one was supposed to notice which mayoral administration had been in charge of such apartments over the years they were becoming unlivable.

2.) Yesterday, the schoolteachers of Baltimore heaved a slight sigh of relief -- and everybody else who works for the city wondered: Am I next to get hit?

Late last summer, worried about getting re-elected, Mayor Schmoke handed these teachers a 5 percent pay raise. They deserve it. They work hard, they attempt to give hope to kids hungry for a fair shot, and they make less money than any public school teachers in the metro area.

But the city can't afford the raise, and the mayor knew it when he gave it to them. There were already reports of huge school budget troubles during the campaign -- and both the mayor and his superintendent, Dr. Walter Amprey, attempted to slough them off. This is known as pretending people are stupid.

So now, only months after the election, they look at this $23 million school budget gap and announce it will have to be fixed by having teachers work for free. The mayor floats a plan to have all school employees work 10 school days without getting a cent. Essentially, it wipes out the raise he'd given them. This is known as pretending that people have no memory.

Anyway, the teachers balked. They hinted they'd cut back on all the things they routinely do for free -- after-school meetings, theatrical efforts, unappreciated things of that nature. Yesterday, city officials said they'd find a new plan to balance the budget: spreading the burden to all city agencies, which will now brace themselves for trouble.

3.) Black City Council members slipped away for a little weekend meeting from which all white council members were explicitly barred. These black council members wouldn't be talking about council business, explained Councilman Melvin Stukes. They'd be discussing ways to strengthen the struggling black community.

As if there's a difference.

Has no one from this African-American Coalition noticed that there are thousands of black Baltimoreans who are represented by white council members? And, if they have noticed, what's their response -- that these residents are out of luck because their white representatives have been kept out of efforts to improve living conditions?

"We won't have our actions dictated by others," one black council member said. This is wrong. Council actions are supposed to be dictated -- by the needs of the entire community. And in those actions, the council is supposed to set an example, for that entire community, of people who cross various racial and religious lines to work for the common good.

What these folks have done is choose up sides by color -- and asked everybody to call it democracy.

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