Council gives Henson happy valentine hearing

February 18, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Yeah, that was some intense grilling the Baltimore City Council gave to Mr. Truthfulness, Daniel P. Henson, last week. The city's got 8,900 vacant homes. There are 25,966 names on the waiting list for public housing. There's a $25.6 million housing scandal, and housing inspectors are caught in conflicts of interest, and 13 people have been criminally convicted in various ongoing housing investigations.

And here came Henson, the city's housing boss, into City Hall for his reconfirmation hearing last week, and this is what he heard:

From Councilman Melvin Stukes, perhaps thinking deeply of the questionably spent $25.6 million: "Mr. Henson, is it true that our housing department is looked on as a model for the whole country?"

From Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, perhaps pondering the 8,900 vacant homes: "You've always responded to my calls, and JTC I appreciate it."

From Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell, perhaps thinking of the 25,966 people on waiting lists for public housing: "Happy Valentine's Day. Are you having fun yet?"

From Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, angrily expressing her sensitivity and concern for all those living in slum conditions: "How come the TV cameras are only focusing on one council member?"

The council member in question was Martin O'Malley. As O'Malley attempted to press Henson, the ever-vigilant Councilman Reisinger roused himself to shout, "Can't we move this thing on?"

Others in the hearing room gallery, packed with Henson allies, shouted their agreement. How dare O'Malley do the thing for which he was elected, which is to look out for the citizens of Baltimore?

Well, never mind. Henson, always the diplomat, had his own response to O'Malley's questions:

"If Councilman O'Malley wants to meet me in an alley. "

"Yeah," Henson supporters quickly chimed in, "and I'll join you in that alley. "

Beautiful, no? The city's housing stock deteriorates, which means entire neighborhoods teeter, and the City Council of Baltimore stifles a yawn. They toss softballs Henson's way. They seek benediction from this man who trafficks in a system of political rewards and punishment.

And now, on the day after the Henson hearing, we had four council members, the only ones who'd dared show any edge when the housing commissioner looked them in the eye, and here's what they were saying:

Councilman O'Malley: "He wants to meet me in an alley, can you believe it? I'm dumbfounded. It's not only unprofessional, it's common, ignorant and base. A threat of violence in a public forum. "

Councilwoman Joan Carter Conway: "I think [council members] are afraid of Henson. They're afraid of the political machinery of Henson and the mayor. But this shouldn't be about politics, it's about constituent services. That hearing was a total embarrassment. How do these people face themselves in the morning?"

Councilman Tony Ambridge: "They're afraid of Henson. This is a guy who keeps lists, good guys and bad guys. Everybody knows there's a list. You have council members who get as many as 10 calls a day about housing problems. We should call the housing people directly responsible to fix those problems. But we can't. Henson says we have to call him personally. But, if you're on his bad list, you get called back maybe five days later. Constituents think you don't care about them. And some of these are life and death calls."

Council President Lawrence Bell: "This body is an oversight body. We need clarification on housing problems. I don't think it's healthy to have a gag rule on city employees, and that's what the housing commissioner has utilized. Look at this low-cost operation. Why can't we get answers on this?"

He means that $25.6 million no-bid housing cleanup that launched accusations of overcharging, underperformance and favoritism. There were about 1,100 homes involved in that cleanup. When the federal government, concerned at how federal money had been spent, did a spot check of about 100 a hundred of those 1,100 properties, they said there was so much shoddy work that the city had to pay the government back about $650,000 -- and that's just from their initial spot check.

O'Malley wants to interview various housing officials about this. Henson says no. O'Malley wanted to interview Reginald Thomas, chairman of the Housing Authority board, at last week's hearing. Henson said no. Thomas was right there in the room. Once, he walked over to O'Malley and stood over him for a moment as he questioned Henson. Thomas was laughing.

"They were taunting me," O'Malley said. "Just his presence was intended as a taunt. Look, Henson's a guy with two conflicting jobs. He's a political operative for the mayor, and he's housing commissioner. He has to serve the whole public, whether he likes them or not. And the problem is, we have stacks of complaints sent to him, which you never hear about if he doesn't like you. People are upset, entire neighborhoods get upset, and the city looks disfunctional.dysfunctional."

And, gathering up every ounce of courage in its tiny soul, the City Council of Baltimore lets it continue.

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