Replay of Ravens' deal for training facility with city reveals infractions

March 24, 2002|By Gregory Kane

THESE GUYS are offside. Somebody needs to roll up this newspaper and whack them five times on the head.

The guilty parties are Dave Modell, owner of the Baltimore Ravens, Mayor Martin O'Malley and City Solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer Jr. This trio committed a clear infraction when they cut the sweetheart deal on the rental fee for the city-owned training facility in Owings Mills and left Comptroller Joan Pratt, who should handle these matters, out in the cold.

Tack on another 15 whacks to the head for unnecessary dissing of Pratt and another 15 and an automatic first down for unnecessary roughness. That enough football metaphors for you? Good. Now for more details.

In April of last year the Ravens' lease on the Owings Mills property expired. The team's five-year deal - at $1 a year - was up. Pratt, charged with seeing that folks who rent city property pay the fair-market value for it, figured she was doing her job for a cash-strapped city. She asked the Ravens to pay the fair-market price of $225,000. Silly woman. Whom did she think she was? The comptroller?

The Ravens balked, and the haggle-thon was on. Pratt offered the team a discount of a little over 11 percent and lowered the rental price to $200,000. The team wanted a better deal. There were hints from others in City Hall that they might get one from the mayor. All of a sudden, the Ravens' talks with Pratt hit an "impasse," a word Zollicoffer used in an article by Sun reporter Caitlin Francke last week.

"They were at an impasse because he [Zollicoffer] told [the Ravens] not to deal with me but to deal with the law department directly," Pratt said Thursday afternoon. Zollicoffer could not be reached for comment.

Last week the new Ravens-Baltimore deal was announced. The team will pay $125,000 for the training facility. Instead of an 11 percent discount, the Ravens have a 44 percent discount and probably some bad publicity they didn't bargain for. Football fans, as well as those who don't know a pigskin from a sheepskin, will figure the National Football League team was being cheap, petty and greedy, not to mention sneaky and downright disrespectful of Pratt.

O'Malley and Zollicoffer tried to say the deal was within the mayor's purview because it involves urban renewal and economic development. That argument won't wash. The mayor and city solicitor can't change reality. This was a matter involving rent on city property. Pratt says the city charter clearly says that's in her bailiwick, not the mayor's.

O'Malley and Zollicoffer have set a bad precedent: Any business that rents property from the city and that doesn't like what it pays can disregard Pratt and go right to the mayor or city solicitor. That fact hasn't been lost on Pratt.

"That's a concern I have," the comptroller said of the mayor and city solicitor undercutting her.

Let's look at this from another angle. Suppose when police Commissioner Ed Norris comes up for reconfirmation by the City Council that Pratt makes public pronouncements about Norris' record and advocates for or against him. Most folks would figure she was poking her nose in where it doesn't belong.

It's the same deal here. But O'Malley, contemplating a run for governor or re-election as mayor, has another problem. There will be a perception that he has a problem with black women in positions of authority.

He doesn't, of course. O'Malley is probably the coolest white guy in the country on the matter of race. He may be the coolest white guy, period. But his enemies in any future run for political office will use this against him. They'll point to his spat with State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy and his stepping on Pratt's toes to prove their point. They won't convince many, but in a close election, they may not have to.

O'Malley figures that won't happen. Voters, he said, will look at the relationship he has with the three black women elected to citywide office - Pratt, Jessamy and City Council President Sheila Dixon - and see that "for the most part, I get along with all three." The mayor was especially effusive in his paean to Pratt.

"I'm always praising of Joan's audits, and I think she's done a good job with those audits," O'Malley said. "It's not often we disagree. We have to disagree sometimes, otherwise folks could save a lot of money by only electing one of us."

As for that end run the Ravens bigwigs made around Pratt - darn, there goes a football metaphor again - O'Malley says it's normal in city politics. Folks who figure they can't get a good deal from him may go to Pratt or Dixon. O'Malley said people went around the comptroller all the time, figuring they'd get a better deal from former Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

That sounds like typical Baltimore politics. O'Malley said Pratt's done the city a service by getting at least $125,000 that it might not have had otherwise. But her protest may have done something else. Perhaps Baltimoreans may be inspired to demand a clearer separation of powers among our top officials.

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