$1 million more OK'd to defend city in suit Fees are for legal services in housing bias dispute

May 07, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

City leaders have agreed to spend $1 million more for an outside legal firm to defend the housing department against a landmark suit that claims Baltimore's low-income blacks have been unfairly segregated in public housing for decades.

The Board of Estimates voted yesterday to raise the retainer of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston from $775,000 to $1.75 million to defend the city in the suit filed in 1995 by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"This is a big desegregation case," said Otho M. Thompson, chief of the city's Law Department. "There are a lot of issues about the public housing that have to be worked out."

Yesterday's increase "covers another year" of legal fees, Thompson said.

At issue is how to desegregate some of the low-rise public housing communities, such as Cherry Hill and Hollander Ridge.

Also, the city and the ACLU are hammering out the final details to raze the last three public high-rises in Baltimore: Lexington Terrace, Flag House Courts and Murphy Homes.

Lafayette Courts high-rise has been razed and was replaced by a less dense, mixed-income rowhouse community. It has been renamed Pleasant View Gardens.

City leaders warn that the cost of the suit might increase if the case goes to trial.

The suit alleges that the city, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development illegally segregated black public housing tenants for six decades, which the defendants deny.

It says the agencies would "rebuild segregation for generations" and perpetuate poverty if allowed to redevelop the high-rise sites as public housing.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said the city is being forced to spend the extra money on lawyers. He said the city is committed to desegregation of public housing, in part by eliminating the high-rises.

"We are spending too much money in trying to demonstrate to the ACLU that we are doing the right thing," Henson said. "Somebody at the ACLU is trying to make a career out of this thing."

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, president of the Board of Estimates, voted yesterday to spend the extra $1 million in outside legal fees.

But he cautioned that city spending on outside lawyers in general needs to be kept at a minimum.

"I had mixed feelings" about approving the expenditure, Bell said. "I am very leery about any future money for this case." He said the city should try to settle the ACLU desegregation suit.

During his re-election campaign three years ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was criticized for excessive city spending on outside law firms, including payments to Shapiro & Olander, which numbered among its lawyers two top political advisers, Larry S. Gibson and Ronald M. Shapiro.

A report by the city issued in response to the criticism detailed expenditures to outside law firms of $17.4 million from Jan. 1, 1991, through June 30, 1995, an average of $3.9 million a year.

The Board of Estimates voted in September to hire three outside law firms, at a cost of more than $500,000, to handle city cases that include a dispute about overtime for police officers and legal tussle over water rights at the Susquehanna River.

Schmoke has pledged to curtail city spending on outside legal firms and instructed the Law Department to handle more cases. But he maintains that the city needs to hire outside legal counsel in especially difficult cases.

In April 1996, the city agreed to a partial settlement in the ACLU suit that pours $300 million in federal funds into replacing public housing high-rises with rowhouse communities and to house 3,200 poor black families, many in the suburbs.

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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