Housing director faces review by City Council Feb. 14 hearing seen as becoming contentious

February 05, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Daniel P. Henson III emerged from a three-hour Baltimore City Council confirmation hearing with all but one council member backing him as the new housing commissioner.

The votes won't come that easily at his reconfirmation hearing Feb. 14. Some council members already are calling the hearing the "Valentine's Day Massacre," anticipating a contentious question-and-answer session.

Mr. Henson -- the sometimes enigmatic, often abrupt, mostly controversial housing chief -- still is likely to win the 10 votes from the 19-member panel that would let him keep his job. But more than a few of the members have become opponents since 1993.

Some council members are less upset about Mr. Henson's current problems -- city housing officials who own decrepit properties -- than about past issues and what some critics say is a vindictive streak.

"I think it is going to be a difficult hearing for Danny Henson," said 5th District Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector. "There is a lot of angst over housing in the council."

Even Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who relies heavily on Mr. Henson, has said Mr. Henson has gone from the catbird seat to the hot seat.

"I recognize he is a controversial person," Mr. Schmoke said. But, "I believe that after the council members weigh all the information on him, they will vote to reconfirm."

Mr. Henson is confident. "I have no doubt that I have 10 votes," he said.

Mr. Henson's problems with the council stem in part from the $25.6 million no-bid housing repair program that federal auditors found last year had risked millions of dollars on start-up construction companies with little experience.

Thirteen people, six of them involved in the repair program, have been convicted of corruption charges resulting from a federal investigation.

Mr. Henson's problems also stem from a seven-hour March hearing on the repair program.

Some council members, including President Lawrence A. Bell III, termed the hearing a "farce" because Mr. Henson avoided answering specific questions by giving long, circuitous answers, they say.

They also charge that hearing Chairwoman Vera P. Hall curtailed critics' questioning of the housing commissioner.

Mr. Henson's latest problems include explaining why several of his employees, including Henry John "Jack" Reed III, superintendent of housing inspection, own rental properties in the city that are in severe disrepair.

But some council members have said they are more concerned with earlier problems.

Most on the council have taken sides on Mr. Henson's fate, but some have kept their opinions to themselves.

Likely to vote for Mr. Henson are Mrs. Spector, Robert W. Curran of the 3rd District, Helen L. Holton of the 5th District and Edward lTC L. Reisinger of the 6th District, and staunch Schmoke administration supporters Paula Johnson Branch and Robert L. Douglass of the 2nd District, Sheila Dixon of the 4th District, and Norman A. Handy Sr. and Melvin L. Stukes of the 6th District.

Likely to oppose Mr. Henson, or at least express sharp reservations about his reappointment, are Mr. Bell, John L. Cain and Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. of the 1st District, Anthony J. Ambridge of the 2nd District, Joan Carter Conway and Martin O'Malley of the 3rd District and Agnes Welch of the 4th District.

The remaining three council members -- Stephanie C. Rawlings of the 5th District, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. of the 4th District and Lois Garey of the 1st District -- have taken a wait-and-see attitude.

Some of the veteran members still bristle over Mr. Henson's treatment of the council during the controversy over the no-bid repair program.

Mr. Henson fought off efforts by the council's Legislative Investigations Committee to force Reginald C. Thomas, board chairman of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, to explain his role in the repair program.

His detractors also bristle over what they say was his refusal to answer specific questions about the repair program during a long hearing in March designed to quell criticism of him.

"If he chooses not to be accountable and cooperative, then I perceive the meeting could be quite onerous," said Mr. Ambridge, the lone council member to vote against Mr. Henson in 1993.

Much of the criticism concerns Mr. Henson's aggressive management style as much as it does his job performance.

"His performance is one thing," Mr. D'Adamo said. "I'm more concerned with Dan Henson as a person. I want assurance that he will no longer be the hatchet man for the mayor."

Mr. D'Adamo warned the seven freshman council members that "anyone that votes against him will be on his hit list.

"Whatever he feels he can do to hurt you, he will, if you are not playing ball with the mayor 110 percent. They should know that," he said.

Mr. Henson's supporters say his accomplishments outweigh the criticism.

"Yes, he's made some mistakes, but he's done some good things," said Ms. Holton, who counts Mr. Henson as a longtime friend.

"He's rough around the edges, but he loves Baltimore."

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