Time for mayor to act Slumlords ignored: Prompt action needed to restore confidence in housing department.

February 21, 1996

THE REAPPOINTMENT of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III should not be confirmed until the mayor investigates incidents in which certain housing officials have ignored the very laws the public entrusts them to uphold.

Conflicts of interest are bound to arise when city policy allows these officials to own slum dwellings that their own department is supposed to inspect. But when they also ignore or quash citations to repair these properties, this is an abuse of power that demands an outside investigation by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The City Council tried to find out in hearings on Mr. Henson's reappointment whether housing officials were putting themselves above the law. But the council was hampered by the commissioner's denial of its authority to question his subordinates. So confident was Mr. Henson that the council would not impede his continued service that he became belligerent. He cannot take such an attitude with the mayor, who rightly said he, not Mr. Henson, will "make the final call" on issues plaguing the agency.

The mayor should determine whether Mr. Henson is capable of ending apparent back-scratching and favoritism in his department. One of Mr. Henson's top aides, Arthur D. Gray, reportedly has manipulated the housing code to avoid paying thousands of dollars in fines for not repairing houses he has been renting to poor families who could not afford to live elsewhere. Why should other landlords abide by the law if city officials themselves sneer at the housing code?

Though the council is expected to confirm the commissioner's reappointment at its Feb. 26 meeting, the mayor should ask the council to delay action until he can provide it with a full report on the housing department and Mr. Henson's fitness to root out malfeasance and correct the code enforcement morass.

Those in authority at the housing department need to remember it is their duty to enforce a housing code designed to deliver decent dwellings to Baltimore residents. When public officials, whose job is to make sure houses are in good condition, let their own properties rot, something is terribly wrong. They undermine the mayor's constant efforts to keep people from moving out of the city, leaving vacant structures in their wake. It has got to stop.

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