Strong seen as idealist on city

Ex-solid waste chief's convictions placed at center of landfill battle

`Not afraid to be outspoken'

`Eternal optimist' says he's looking for new social challenge

May 30, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Kenneth J. Strong doesn't look like the forceful leader of the castle rebellion that former Baltimore Department of Public Works officials claimed he was in their federal trial last week.

The bookish former city solid waste director, whom friends label an idealist, was pointed to as the instigator of an insurrection against his one-time bosses because he expressed concerns over shoddy work on a landfill repair contract.

Strong's complaints led to his firing, a federal grand jury probe of the agency and, as the jury concluded, department retaliation against two former colleagues who sided with him. The episode also cost him his long friendship with former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"Ken has always been somebody who is highly principled and feels strongly about making the city better," said Alfred W. Barry III, a former city planning official who is now a consultant. "And he's not afraid to be outspoken about it."

Strong was not a party to the weeklong trial but was at the center of the debate that began five years ago over repairs at the city's Quarantine Road Landfill near Hawkins Point.

Strong's one-time colleagues, Public Works engineers Jeanne Robinson and David Marc, ended up suing the agency's former director, George G. Balog, and his top aides, claiming that the supervisors had violated their rights of free speech by retaliating against them for speaking out. A jury in federal court awarded the two workers $178,000 in combined damages.

Strong, 50, is now director of the Southeast Community Organization Inc. and on a new crusade.

His current project is helping lead the fight to expose fraudulent house sales to the poor as a founder of the Coalition to End Predatory Real Estate Practices. "He has a sharp conscience," said retired Circuit Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman, who has known him since Strong was a teen-ager. "He was always soft-spoken, but a person of determined pursuit, sensitive to the down-and-out people in society."

Strong grew up in Northwest Baltimore and attended Woodlawn High School. He attributes his passion for social change to growing up in the turbulent 1960s as a member of the Lancers Boys Club, which was founded by Hammerman.

The young men's group served as a weekly incubator for teaching youths to make a difference in their corners of the world. Strong recalls making an impassioned speech as a 15-year-old urging the Lancers to integrate.

"I said that I didn't want to be a member of a club that discriminated against black members," Strong said.

One of the first black members was an equally bookish City College high school student named Schmoke who grew up to become Baltimore's first elected black mayor.

The same conviction and persistence that Strong wielded to open the Lancers' door to Schmoke closed the door 30 years later on his public works job and their friendship.

After Schmoke became Baltimore state's attorney in 1982, he appointed Strong his community liaison. When he was elected mayor, Schmoke picked Strong to chair the city Planning Commission. And in 1993, the mayor hired the University of Rochester graduate with the English degree as city recycling coordinator.

The next year, Strong was appointed director of the Bureau of Solid Waste, a $69,000-a-year post from which he directed an army of 960 public works employees while managing a $33 million budget. Yet, within 18 months, Strong's commitment to protecting the environment and his willingness to challenge the status quo collided with Balog's iron-fisted stand.

In August 1995, Strong complained that the contractor hired to repair the Quarantine Road Landfill leachate pond, L. F. Mahoney, had failed to seal it properly. He refused Balog's order to put the pond -- designed to capture runoff rainwater contaminated by garbage -- back into service, fearing it would pollute the area.

Strong sent memos to his old friend Schmoke, who testified during the recent weeklong trial that he investigated the allegations but found the concerns unwarranted. On Nov. 10, 1995, Balog fired Strong after gaining approval from Schmoke.

Strong refused to relent. He appeared at a city Board of Estimates meeting a month later urging the five-member spending board that included Schmoke to withhold an additional $42,000 payment to the Mahoney company.

Contaminated runoff was seeping through the cracks, the protective clay liner was replaced with asphalt, and some work required had not been done, Strong said.

On the witness stand last week, Schmoke called Strong's allegation's "senseless political theater." The former mayor also said that it was Strong who first contacted the U.S. attorney and the FBI to investigate the Public Works Department operations.

Since 1996, the federal agencies have issued dozens of subpoenas, interviewed city workers, collected 40,000 city records and impaneled a grand jury as part of their criminal investigation.

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