2 bills aim to bring BDC into the open

City senators want agency's meetings accessible to public

Mayor opposes measures

Proposals' critics say business dealings require secrecy

February 21, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Development Corp. has come under renewed criticism for its closed-door operations, and two state senators are pushing for legislation to open its meetings.

Citizens groups have long criticized the city's quasi-public economic development agency for secretly negotiating Baltimore real estate deals that affect their neighborhoods.

One of the senators, Democrat George W. Della Jr., said he is frustrated by his lack of access to information on projects proposed for his southern Baltimore district. Most recently, Della opposed the agency's decision to support a $2.7 million city-tax exemption for a $25.6 million apartment complex being built along Key Highway.

A $350 million proposal to renovate the west side of downtown also has sparked criticism of the BDC method of operation.

Many west-side merchants opposed to the redevelopment plan were upset to learn recently that the leader of their group had been seeking BDC approval to build a $1 million shopping complex in the area.

Such projects don't have to be disclosed until the BDC takes action on them, because the agency was established in 1984 as a nonprofit agency and is exempt from the state's open meetings law -- an exemption that extends to agency documents.

Critics point out that the BDC receives about $6 million, or about 75 percent of its budget, from the city and the state.

Despite the public funding, city leaders maintain that the closed-door meetings are critical to protecting the private financial information of businesses engaged in delicate real estate or relocation negotiations with the city.

"I don't think it's a good idea," Mayor Martin O'Malley said of opening the meetings. "After all, we're trying to attract large employers to the region. [Making the talks public] puts us at a huge competitive disadvantage."

The state's open meetings act allows public agencies to hold "executive sessions" -- private meetings -- to discuss real estate negotiations, which are a majority of the BDC's work, officials said.

During the past four years, the agency has helped to retain or create 20,000 jobs and generated close to $1 billion in investments in the city, according to BDC annual reports. Last week, the BDC announced that it would extend $250,000 in loans and grants to renovate the dormant Esskay Quality Meats Co. processing plant at 3800 E. Baltimore St.

"Most of what we discuss at the board meetings is confidential financial information," said BDC President M. J. "Jay" Brodie, referring to the 12-member board that includes several downtown business leaders. "We'd be holding a lot of executive sessions."

Della disagrees with those, such as O'Malley, who say forcing the BDC to open its meetings would hinder Baltimore when it competes with cities that have similar agencies that need not abide by "sunshine" laws.

"It would not hurt them or burden them in any way or make them nonfunctional," Della said about open meetings. "Open up the doors and windows, and let the sunshine in."

Conway proposal

Della has introduced a bill that would bring the BDC under the open meetings law. Sen. Joan Carter Conway has introduced a measure that would apply to any agency where public officials make up at least 50 percent of the board.

The Della and Conway bills have the support of an unlikely ally: state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. During his four terms as mayor of Baltimore, Schaefer was criticized for allowing such boards, or "shadow governments," to blossom.

The BDC was created under Schaefer, who has sided with merchants and preservationists in the west-side dispute.

"This project is too big to sit in the shade," Schaefer said.

`Uphill fight'

Prospects appear slim that either Senate bill will pass, given the objections of the BDC and O'Malley, key lawmakers said. Conway, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, introduced a similar measure two years ago that passed the Senate but failed to clear the House Judiciary Committee by one vote.

"It'll be an uphill fight," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the East Baltimore Democrat who heads the city's Senate delegation. "It is something that has been unsuccessful in the past."

He added, "My take is that a certain portion of those meetings have to be closed. We shouldn't be in the posture where we're inhibiting developers."

Sun staff writer William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

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