Legislators urged to support move to open BDC meetings

City business owners express frustrations

March 03, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Frustrated by the Baltimore Development Corp.'s handling of real estate deals affecting their neighborhoods, west-side shopkeepers and Little Italy residents urged the General Assembly yesterday to adopt legislation that would open the quasi-public city agency's meetings.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, the nonprofit development agency's president, however, warned members of the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee that Baltimore's efforts to attract jobs and investment could be hindered if the BDC is forced to give the public access to its deliberations and documents.

Young Kim Robinson, co-owner of Beauty Plus hair salon on West Baltimore Street, testified at the hearing that she has had trouble getting information about a $350 million plan to revitalize the west side of downtown, even though she and other merchants might face displacement.

"Please open it up. Let the air in," Robinson asked, speaking on behalf of about 30 Korean-American shopkeepers in the redevelopment area.

Two city senators have introduced separate bills that would require BDC officials to hold open meetings and allow agency records to be reviewed by the public.

"The public doesn't trust them," said Sen. George W. Della Jr., sponsor of the bill that was the subject of yesterday's hearing.

A South Baltimore Democrat, Della has criticized a BDC-backed apartment project on Key Highway in his district. While the agency has helped the city, he said, its lack of openness has fostered suspicion that only politically connected developers can get lucrative deals with City Hall.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, has introduced a broader measure that would apply the state's open-meetings law to any agency in which public officials make up at least half the board of directors.

Conway criticized the BDC yesterday for not keeping one of her district's neighborhood groups better informed about the fate of the troubled Belvedere Square shopping center.

Maryann Pastore, whose family runs Pastore's Inc., an Italian food business, told the panel that she faulted the BDC for keeping Little Italy residents in the dark about delays in a proposed parking garage for the popular restaurant district.

Brodie defended the agency's work and suggested the proposed legislation would inhibit the ability of his 45-member staff to negotiate development deals. The public has opportunity to learn about and comment on projects before they are finalized, he added.

The agency mainly recommends deals to the mayor and to the Board of Estimates -- which approves municipal spending -- for approval or rejection.

"We're not strictly a governmental body," Brodie concluded, though the BDC is funded by the city and its board is appointed by the mayor.

Brodie suggested the proposed legislation would do little to open up BDC's deliberations. The state's open-meetings law allows public officials to conduct closed executive sessions on real estate transactions and on efforts to lure or retain businesses -- the bulk of BDC's work.

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