Aid program chief comes under fire

Political pressure led to woman's hiring, says her supervisor

February 25, 2002|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

As head of Southwest Baltimore's Neighborhood Assistance Program, Louise Hintze helped feed the hungry, clothe the needy and bury the poor.

It was hardly a glamorous job and paid less than $22,000 a year, but finding a replacement for Hintze, who died in December of pancreatic cancer at 71, grew political and personal, say those involved.

Politicians and judges lobbied for Claradeinia "Dina" Koethe to be named Hintze's successor. Koethe, who had volunteered under Hintze, collected more than 700 signatures on a petition backing her for the job.

Judith Bennick, executive director of Communities Organized to Improve Life, or COIL, said she was pressured to hire Koethe and fears the woman lacks the know-how to fill the position and have Hintze's impact.

"It was my concern that the next person that comes in certainly has to be able to know where resources are and know how to access them," Bennick said. "I didn't get an opportunity to look at the candidates that I thought would best fill the position. It became a real personal issue with her. There was no reason for her to circulate the petition. No one had ever told her she couldn't get the job.

"The thing that bothers me ... is no one inherits a job. No one should be given a position because they worked as a volunteer. This girl was given this job."

Koethe, 38, took over for Hintze when the respected community advocate's health failed. Initially, she said, she wasn't concerned with landing the job - which was created more than 20 years ago for Hintze and is paid for through community development block grant funds administered by COIL.

"What I was really thinking whenever she started getting really ill is that I hope somebody gets it who really cares about the job," Koethe said recently as she sat in her small office on South Calhoun Street answering the phone and distributing bags of sweet potatoes and bread. "By the end, my heart was set on the job."

Community service

A big part of the job entails working with people who have been ordered to perform community service. On Wednesday, seven such workers used shovels and trash bags to clean alleys and streets in Southwest Baltimore. Bennick said the area where Koethe assists people is poor, with the average family income less than $15,000 and only a third of the residents owning cars.

Bennick said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, was among those who called her to talk about Koethe, but that the two never spoke.

Della said his biggest concern was that the position not be eliminated.

"I lobbied to keep the center open," Della said, acknowledging that he told Reggie Scriber, director of the ombudsman's office in the Department of Housing and Community Development, "that the program has to continue providing for those people who have historically come to this little neighborhood center for the last 20 years."

Support for new director

Della said he thought Koethe should get the job because she had worked closely with Hintze for two years and knew enough about the post to step in.

Scriber said he received several calls about Hintze's replacement.

"I got calls from people in the political arena, former judges, people from the District Court because of the community service aspect of the job," Scriber said. "They were very supportive of Dina remaining in that position, extremely supportive."

Scriber said he did not receive calls in support of anyone else, nor was he surprised at the interest generated by the job - which officials say is the only one of its kind in the city.

Bennick said more than 20 people expressed interest in the position. Members of the Union Square Association were split on whether Koethe was appropriate for it, and a woman affiliated with the New Southwest Community Association "was adamant about me not hiring Dina for the job," Bennick said.

Scriber organized a meeting Feb. 9 between Bennick and Koethe and urged them to try to get along.

Pressure denied

"Pressure was not put on Judy Bennick," Scriber said. "What we did say to Judy was ... it made sense to keep whoever was there in place until such time as Ms. Bennick could make an assessment of Dina's ability. I made it very clear to Dina that Judy was her boss and she would have to comply with her wishes."

For now, at least, it seems the two are trying to work things out.

But there have been complaints about Koethe, including that she turned away hungry people and used the center as a "hangout" for her family.

On Dec. 31, after Hintze's funeral, Koethe opened the center for a memorial service. Food was served. But Koethe said she let in only those who had attended the funeral.

"Here she was on the very day that Ms. Hintze was buried acting as judge and jury," Bennick said. "One man told me they denied him food, and he saw them packing it up."

Koethe said she knows she's on probation and might be replaced. She also knows she wasn't everyone's choice for the job.

"I feel I should have never been put on a probational period and that I'm helping the people that need to be helped," Koethe said. "I know that personally, at the moment, I don't have all the knowledge that Ms. Hintze had, but a lot of her friends are working with me to help me find the knowledge. I feel that all the things that was important for me to know to get started, Ms. Hintze told me. She told me a lot of things while she was in the hospital."

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