ACORN fears city retaliation for referendum

Officials may cut grants to housing arm of group that seeks smaller council

August 01, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The day after a political group announced that it successfully helped put a referendum on the ballot in November to shrink the Baltimore City Council, the organization complained that city officials were threatening to retaliate financially.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, City Council President Sheila Dixon and others discussed yesterday the possibility of ending $50,000 a year in grants that the city gives to Acorn Housing Corp., which provides housing counseling to low-income people.

The counseling group is allied with but legally separate from the political group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which worked with labor unions and others to collect signatures to reduce the council from 19 to 15 members.

"That would be a very negative thing for the city to retaliate," said Rose Taylor, co-chairwoman of the local branch of ACORN's community activist group. "It would do some real damage, because our counseling program helps a lot of people."

O'Malley questioned ACORN's tactics of working as "professional protesters" who collect $65 in dues a year from each of the roughly 2,000 local members and pay staff people to organize loud and disruptive protests.

"The ACORN I know is constantly badgering the city, criticizing us, giving false information about us to the public ... and we are going to give them $50,000?" Dixon asked. "Perhaps another group could use the money."

City Councilman Robert W. Curran questioned whether the ACORN protest group, which criticizes the City Council for failing to pass laws to curb predatory lending, was actually separate from the Acorn Housing Corp., which the city gives $50,000 a year to counsel about 500 people annually on avoiding predatory lending.

"Is this [political activism] extortion to get $50,000 for their program?" Curran asked.

Otis Rolley, first deputy housing commissioner, said his auditors have searched the records of the two groups and determined that they are not sharing funds, although they both rent offices at 825 Park Ave.

Four proposed council bills designed to shrink the council and save taxpayers money have been bottled up in Curran's committee for months. But then ACORN and several other groups worked with labor unions to collect 10,065 signatures to force a referendum Nov. 5 on a proposal to eliminate four City Council positions.

Glen Middleton, president of the AFSCME Local 44 that represents about 5,000 city employees, said two city councilmen had threatened more layoffs to city workers if the union didn't drop its efforts to help with the petition drive.

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