Restore BACVA's credibility

March 13, 2003

BOOKINGS FOR Baltimore's hotel rooms have dropped dramatically in just the past six months. The recently expanded convention center is drawing smaller crowds than before.

Meanwhile, the agency that receives millions of taxpayer dollars to lure crucial trade and tourism business to the city has been trying to disguise its obvious failures by putting out phony sales numbers.

What's more, the leadership of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association had the gall to pay itself bonuses based on the inflated claims.

The findings of a report by Performance Management Inc. make glaringly clear the need for a fresh start. If BACVA is to have any real success and future credibility, Mayor Martin O'Malley should replace its current 15-member board of directors. A clean sweep is the least painful way to ensure the turnaround of this critical agency, so it can give Baltimore the sales job it deserves.

Perhaps most troubling is that the consultants delivered their shocking verdict in January, but the public - and even many BACVA board members - were kept in the dark until public pressure forced release of the report this week. Among the reasons for information curbs was "a strong desire by the board to `do no harm,'" Chairman Clarence T. Bishop explained in a letter Monday.

But plenty of harm was already done. Whom was the board trying to protect but itself?

Disgraced BACVA President Carroll R. Armstrong has already been forced out, but kept on as a consultant, reportedly with a full year's salary. As such, he is to have a role in selecting his successor. BACVA board members agreed to this, even before they had seen the consultants' report.

How are candidates for the president's post supposed to talk frankly in Mr. Armstrong's presence without fearing they may lessen their own chances of getting the job?

Replacing the board and starting the selection process anew would be embarrassing, but only for a few days. It would be far more damaging for Baltimore to go through the motions of an executive search and end up with a candidate not up to the job.

The recent decline of Baltimore's convention business has been so alarming that BACVA's next president must be a winner. Nothing less will do, because that individual will be charged with rebuilding the whole convention association.

That task would be even tougher with the current, compromised board, which long ignored repeated complaints about BACVA's performance. As late as 2001, current members approved a $46,552 bonus for Mr. Armstrong, who received a $173,250 annual salary, despite whispers of irregularities.

Mayor O'Malley should put a quick end to this fiasco.

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