Council confirms housing chief Bell nearly succeeds in dumping Henson, mayor's appointee

February 27, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III engineered a short but stormy rebellion in the council yesterday, putting a scare into the Schmoke administration by briefly derailing the reconfirmation of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

The action embroiled council members in shouting matches and brought two members close to fisticuffs.

"The scars from this are going to cut deep," warned 2nd District Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, predicting that last night's fights could divide the 19-member council for a long time to come.

Mr. Bell surprised supporters of Mr. Henson by calling a quick vote when few were present. He skipped the usual prayer and Pledge of Allegiance and other agenda items to jump right into the vote, which resulted in a 7-6 defeat of Mr. Henson's reconfirmation.

The council president's maneuver was an effort to blunt Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's strong influence over many council members. But it backfired. The mayor's allies scrambled to reverse the vote, confirmed Mr. Henson two hours later and then forced Mr. Bell to defend his tactics.

But Mr. Bell and his allies were thrilled with their brief victory. "If this was David against Goliath, this is going to show that David is not just going to roll over," he said.

However, they also created what may become permanent split between pro-Bell and pro-Schmoke factions.

"These were childish games being played out because the majority had the vote" for Mr. Henson, said 4th District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, who got into a shouting match with Mr. Bell.

Second District Councilmen Anthony J. Ambridge, a Henson critic, and Robert L. Douglass, a Henson supporter, appeared to be ready to fight. Their faces were only inches apart and Mr. Douglass cursed at Mr. Ambridge during a loud argument.

Mr. Schmoke, who was not present, reacted angrily to Mr. Bell's tactic. Through his press secretary, the mayor termed it "both unnecessary and needlessly hostile to the administration."

Mr. Bell said that he has been fair with the Schmoke administration and that, "we followed the letter of the rules."

Chaos engulfed the council after the surprise coup.

As Mr. Bell steamrollered the dissenting votes through in the first ballot, he ignored Mrs. Dixon's yells to be heard. The mayor's aides scrambled to organize Mr. Henson's supporters on the council just as they were beginning to walk into the chambers.

As council members slowly began to realize that Mr. Bell was stacking votes against Mr. Henson, Mrs. Dixon at the last minute outfoxed the dissenters and set the stage for a revote:

She motioned for 6th District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a supporter of Mr. Henson, to vote with the opposing side. In doing so he could -- under council rules -- call for another vote under the guise that he had changed his mind.

Henson opponents tried to end the meeting before the vote could be retaken, but lacked a majority.

"For two hours we had accountable government," mused 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley, who opposed Mr. Henson.

After Mr. Henson was confirmed, the council members hoodwinked by the quick vote criticized Mr. Bell. Mr. Stukes called the president's move the "height of hypocrisy," and 6th District Councilman Norman A. Handy called it "insidious insensitivity and invidious individualism."

Mr. Bell -- who since taking office has been starting meetings on time -- defended himself, saying that the council should arrive promptly.

The other members who tried to quash Mr. Henson's reconfirmation were John L. Cain, Joan Carter Conway, Lois Garey and Nicholas D'Adamo.

But some of those council members have charged that Mr. Henson was vindictive and incompetent as the dual director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Last night's confrontation had been building since March.

Efforts to unseat Mr. Henson became especially contentious last month as the council prepared for a public hearing Feb. 14 on his reconfirmation. He technically has been in an acting position since the mayor was re-elected.

The hearing had been expected to be a "St. Valentine's Day Massacre," in anticipation that critics would grill Mr. Henson about several controversial issues.

But the massacre never happened. Instead, the six-hour hearing featured mostly kid-glove questions, interspersed with heated exchanges between Mr. Henson and his most vocal critics, Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ambridge.

The council also reconfirmed City Solicitor Neal M. Janey and Recreation and Parks Director Marlyn J. Perritt.

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