Mayor faces loud criticism

O'Malley backed out of promise to fund after-school program

November 13, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

One of the city's most vocal activist groups is taking Mayor Martin O'Malley to task for backing away from a campaign promise to fund and expand the organization's after-school program for more than 1,000 children.

Members of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) say they will appear at O'Malley's public events and demand that he honor his commitment for $2 million in direct, annual funding for their program, Child First Authority.

"We will follow him to every public forum where he shows his face to let every citizen of Maryland know that this is a mayor who does not keep his commitments to the children of Baltimore," said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, co-chair of BUILD and pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church. "We don't enter fights not to win."

For the past two Wednesdays, BUILD members appeared at the Board of Estimates meetings in City Hall, wearing bright yellow buttons in protest.

O'Malley shrugs off the criticism and calls his $2 million campaign promise in the 1999 Democratic primary "a mistake."

"If I have to suffer political hits in order to serve more kids in this city, then that's a price I am willing to pay," O'Malley said.

He maintains that a new system for funding after-school programs, in the planning stages as he took office, is more effective than what was done in the past.

After taking office in December 1999, O'Malley endorsed the system and changed the way after-school programs are funded. Instead of the city's directly funding programs, city money is pooled with private foundation funds in a pot of roughly $6.5 million that is distributed to about 50 programs.

Programs apply for funding through a public-private partnership known as the Family League, which has strict accountability requirements. Its members include heads of city family service agencies, foundations and community leaders.

BUILD's program, Child First, offers academic, cultural and recreational activities for children in eight elementary schools and one middle school.

Child First has a $715,000 budget, mostly funded by the state. But the majority of its money used to come directly from the city. At one point, in 1999, its budget reached $1.9 million, $1.4 million of it from the city.

O'Malley's reversal seems to signal that the mayor is willing to risk political fallout from ignoring BUILD, unlike his predecessor, Kurt L. Schmoke, who went to great lengths to satisfy the group.

It is a fight that could test the political sway of BUILD, which, in addition to Schmoke, once had the ear of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

BUILD counts more than 40 city congregations as its members and in its 24 years in Baltimore has proved a powerful force.

It spearheaded the Nehemiah housing program that, since 1987, has constructed hundreds of houses for low-income families in the Sandtown-Winchester, Penn-North and Cherry Hill neighborhoods.

Though the group is not permitted to endorse political candidates without losing its tax-exempt status, it can mobilize troops. Glendening counted on it for a "nonpartisan" get-out-the-vote effort in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore in 1998, when he defeated Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey for governor a second time.

BUILD claims 12,000 members in the city, which could create problems for O'Malley in a re-election campaign or a run for governor. But political observers note that members of the group's leadership, as individuals, backed an O'Malley opponent, Carl Stokes, in the Democratic primary two years ago, and O'Malley won without them.

As O'Malley has retained the support of other city churches with far larger black congregations, observers say, the mayor could probably weather this fight. But it could get messy, they say.

"He got elected without BUILD, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining his position toward them now," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

"If I were the mayor, I wouldn't want to get these people real mad at me," said Crenson.

BUILD leaders maintain that O'Malley is refusing to fund their program to punish them because the mayor believes that the organization did not support him. They say that the leadership - notably Miles, the former head of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, which endorsed Stokes - does not represent the vote of the whole group.

"Our clergy would say, `Hey, we supported Carl Stokes as pastors.' The problem is that BUILD has [other members], and many of them didn't vote for Carl Stokes," said Rob English, an organizer.

O'Malley said politics had nothing to do with his decision not to fund Child First. The new system, he said, eliminates politics by having independent judges deem whether a program is effective or not.

But he noted that Miles and BUILD have not been friends to him.

"I actually admire their chutzpah - that they would be such vocal opponents of mine ... during the campaign and then jack me up the following year," O'Malley said.

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