Regulating pay phones to hinder drug trade

Approval process: Mayor is undecided on bills to give communities a voice on permits

Getting away with murder

June 18, 1999

AFTER YEARS of unfettered operation, police recently closed one of Baltimore's biggest open-air drug markets. Also gone from the intersection of Monroe and Fayette streets are six illegal pay phones used by drug dealers.

This crackdown, prompted by Sun editorials, shows authorities are capable of action. But authorities had ignored problems for so long that unscrupulous elements had written them off. The result was a proliferation of open-air drug markets and pirate pay phones, which now vastly outnumber the city's 592 authorized outdoor pay phones.

"Pay phones are a problem," acknowledges Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. He is trying to decide whether to sign or veto two City Council bills that would regulate such phones.

The mayor says the situation is tricky because many people in the poorest neighborhoods depend on pay phones as a lifeline.

The question is not about outlawing all pay phones, however, but of regulating them so that they will not become a neighborhood nuisance and tool for drug dealers.

Right now, the procedure for issuing permits is so cumbersome that it's ignored -- and no process exists for removing illegal pay phones that become a source of community complaint.

The two council bills would rectify those deficiencies.

Council member Martin O'Malley's measure would require notification of the City Council, the police and community organizations about all proposed outdoor pay phone locations and public hearings.

No pay phones could be installed on taverns, vacant buildings or on blocks that are mostly abandoned. All incoming calls would be prohibited. (No such restrictions would apply to indoor pay phones.)

Council member Helen Holton's bill would prescribe stiff penalties for violators.

Both bills have the support of the Community Law Center, which has been at the forefront of the fight against pirate phones.

Mayor Schmoke seems to have questions, though. He has sought the opinion of the city solicitor.

The mayor's caution is not unreasonable.

But if he chooses to veto the bills, he should propose a better mechanism for regulating an acute problem his administration has ignored for far too long.

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