Henson's exit signals City Hall's woes

April 14, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Wednesday morning, Joan Pratt walked into City Hall's Board of Estimates room, normally certified as one of the five most boring places on the face of the planet, and found herself facing four newspaper reporters, two television reporters, a radio reporter and three television cameras examining every pore of her face like some exotic lunar landscape.

It was, in that moment, possible to sense the end of her friend Julius Henson's brief voyage on the city payroll, whose benediction was given by Pratt, and yet to feel terribly sorry for this naive young lady who was utterly misguided and overmatched.

That afternoon, in a lengthy telephone interview, she was continuing to stand by Henson, calling him "fantastic" and claiming he was saving the city huge amounts of money mismanaged by others at City Hall.

By the next day, though, she asked Henson to resign, and he did. But not before attempting to take hostages with him.

He blamed his sudden leaving on a "media frenzy." The reporters ZTC who worked the Pratt-Henson story and ran with it, such as The Sun's Eric Siegel and Joanna Daemmrich, and those reporters who saw a good thing and jumped on the rear fender for the ride, will take that accusation and wave it like a banner. It comes with the job description.

Then Henson blamed hostility by the Schmoke administration, claiming they were "afraid of competent people who are going to disagree with them" and noting, "This team's had nine years, and what has been accomplished? Are we the city that reads? No, we're the city that closes libraries."

He's on to something there, and we'll get to it, but the waters are a little muddied. Some in the mayor's office have been saying Kurt L. Schmoke tried to talk Pratt out of the Henson appointment before it ever happened. They were saying this as disgust over Pratt and Henson became generalized and threatened to taint all of "City Hall," as the mayor himself publicly lamented hours before Henson's departure.

But in her telephone interview Wednesday, Pratt denied that the mayor had ever made an effort to stop her.

She said, "I didn't get anybody's opinion on it. I don't think anyone knew until I brought his name before the Board of Estimates. I never requested anyone's comments. I'd made a decision to hire [Henson], and I didn't interview anybody else because I didn't want to go through any phony process when I knew he was my choice."

Who's closest to the truth? Who knows? But the mayor's on to something when he worries about all of "City Hall" being tainted by the Pratt-Henson story, and Julius Henson's onto something when he wonders about troubles that exist "nine years" into the Schmoke administration.

This story isn't merely about who will head the city's real estate office. True, it's a $3.2 billion operation and, true, Julius Henson's background -- owner of some rental properties, target of lawsuits, nonpayer of a breathtaking range of bills, intimate friend and business partner of the woman who gave him the job -- made him unquestionably the wrong person for the position.

But the story's also about patterns in the city of Baltimore, and residents' wonder if people of competence and strength and integrity are in charge. Almost daily, the indications shake our confidence: Pratt here and Pratt there (Pratt's hiring of Henson, and the Pratt Library losing branches); Henson here and Henson there (Julius Henson's troubles, and everybody else's troubles with Daniel P. Henson, chief of a housing department that was once the pride of the city and its center of ideas but has now become one of its greatest embarrassments.)

And so, Wednesday morning, Joan Pratt arrived at the Board of Estimates meeting. Arrived to be met by reporters and TV cameras, and arrived to defend what was left of her argument over her friend Julius Henson.

She looked like a nice young lady who'd spent her life playing by the rules, working hard, and somehow found herself being vilified at the moment she should have been feeling wonderful about herself.

There were reports that she'd vacationed with Henson and been spotted putting her head on his shoulder, that she'd fallen

asleep next to him on a plane, that they'd walked the beach and he'd had his arm around her. Such stories are sweet. She's entitled to her moments of intimacy. She's entitled to her friends.

She's just not entitled to combine such intimacy with a troubled city's $3.2 billion worth of real estate investments.

It makes her look bad at a time when she should be ridding the comptroller's office of all memories of the Jacqueline McLean scandal. And it reminds an entire city of its recent history of scandal: decaying houses while millions are spent questionably, the mass production of schoolchildren who can't perform basic skills while administrators get fat, the closing of libraries, the crime and drugs, the neighborhoods under siege.

In the face of all this, Julius Henson doesn't astonish us. He merely serves to validate our deepest concerns: Things at City Hall really do seem to be coming undone.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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