Yahoo City: the city that pleads for expensive, out-of-town help

This Just In...

March 17, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

I BELIEVE in reincarnation. So I'm coming back as a consultant or an out-of-town expert. I want to be a cell-phoning swell in a suit and tasseled Brazilian loafers, who, after getting fired as a highly paid executive, gets hired as a highly paid consultant. I want to be one of those guys.

And I want severance, too. And a car with a driver named Carlos. I want 20 percent off all my purchases at Murray's Steaks.

Life the second time around is going to be sweeter, baby, because I'm coming right back to the ole Palatinate -- Baltimore, Niceville, Yahoo City. This is a town that really knows how to dish out the candy to consultants and experts.

There might be staffers who can do the job, or civic-spirited business executives willing to come up with strategic plans and promotional jingles. But why go with the familiar when you can bring in an expert from the outside and fill his pockets?

Look at Ed Norris, the New York cop Martin O'Mayor brought to town to be police commish. He leaves after just a couple of years to work for the Republican governor as the state's top speeding-ticket writer. But the city gives him a $137,000 severance payment, plus $6,850 a year for life.

For life!

The only thing I'm getting for life is junk mail. At the time all of this became public Mayor O'Malley said: "There were a lot of council members who cast tough votes to confirm and then reconfirm Norris, and they understandably feel like we got yahoo'ed by this out-of-towner. Define yahoo'ed as `to be fleeced and taken advantage of.'"

I got some semantical news for the mayor: Yahoo is not a verb, despite what the Internet company by that name suggests. One doesn't "get yahoo'ed." One is a yahoo. Yahoo is a noun, originating in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels as a race of brutes who look, smell and act poorly -- like humans. It's your basic boorish, crass, or stupid person.

So Norris might have loaded up his pockets with candy from the O'Malley administration, but stupid? I don't think so.

There's a yahoo in this story, but it's not Norris.

Back in 1996, in the sleepy days of the Schmoke administration, Carroll Armstrong, a Baltimore native who had left town in 1981, returned to be chief of the city's convention bureau. Despite being one of more than 100 contenders for the job, Armstrong apparently convinced Schmoke (now his lawyer) and other leaders of Niceville that he was some kind of hot property in the convention-promoting profession.

Somewhere along the way he got terms saying that, if ever Armstrong were to be relieved of his duties -- and he was, last month -- he would get a severance of $272,869 over a year and a half.

That is one lovely parting gift, Bob Barker!

Even lovelier, the board that oversees the convention bureau agreed to keep Armstrong on as a consultant -- and pay him $166,753. That's less than what his severance would have been but, in the taxpayer's view, stunningly outrageous anyway.

They dump the guy because he's not cutting it as convention chief, but try to keep him around to "consult"?

I'm telling you, this is the way to go in your next life.

Don't come back as a unicorn. Don't come back as a busboy at Fuddruckers. Don't come back as a puckerless-persimmon tree on the banks of the Tiber.

Come back as a consultant, or an out-of-town expert.

And come back to Baltimore. It's dandy, a big dish of candy.

The city is paying Linder & Associates $90,000 to revise the plan developed three years ago to reorganize the Police Department. They have six months to draft a plan that reflects the new police commissioner's top priority: attacking open-air drug markets. (Wasn't that the old police commissioner's top priority?)

The city is paying public relations specialist Michael Cryor $100,000 -- about $150 an hour (one-third, Cryor claims, his usual rate) -- to overhaul the mayor's communications office.

And I bet he doesn't even have to do the floors.

This city loves consultants and experts, especially if they're from someplace else.

This tendency is borne of Baltimore's inferiority complex (or O'Malley's tendency to believe that the local talent is inadequate). So we import highly paid experts to show the world we're a big city on the move, or something like that.

In 1999, the Greater Baltimore Alliance hired New York trend-meister Faith Popcorn for what it called a "branding initiative" to "reposition Baltimore" in the American mind. What did Popcorn create? A mass of B's -- "Be ... Become ... Begin ... In Baltimore" -- intended to attract younger people to the city.

When was the last time you heard that expression used anywhere? It's right up there with "I love New York," isn't it?

How much did Ms. Faith Popcorn get for that brilliant idea?

A fraction of her usual fee -- only $275,000.

I've made up my mind. In my next life, I'm coming back as highly paid consultant Hope Potato Chip.

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