BACVA's credibility

October 03, 2003

IF THE TROUBLED Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association is to regain credibility among the public and the hospitality industry, it must end closed-door board meetings and other needlessly secretive shenanigans.

BACVA is not the only quasi-governmental Baltimore agency that skirts public meetings laws by questionably claiming to be a private organization, but City Hall has the tightest control over BACVA.

Not only does the mayor appoint the 22 members of BACVA's board, but his chief of staff, Clarence T. Bishop, oversees the agency as the board chairman.

What's more, city taxpayers finance most of BACVA's $8 million annual budget.

In 1996, when City Hall control was far looser, the Maryland Open Meetings Act Compliance Board viewed BACVA as a private corporation that could legally conduct business behind closed doors, but said it would be a "wise policy" not to do so.

BACVA "is in reality an instrumentality of city policy," despite its having the trappings of a private organization, the compliance board concluded.

Since then, City Hall control has become so tight that BACVA should no longer be legally viewed as an exempt organization.

That control was much in evidence earlier this year, when BACVA President Carroll R. Armstrong came under fire for poor performance and falsified booking data. BACVA's board fired him only after receiving Mayor O'Malley's authorization. Later, the mayor's office - through Mr. Bishop - played a pivotal role in the selection of the new president, Leslie R. Doggett.

On Wednesday, Ms. Doggett promised better accountability and honest bookkeeping from BACVA. That is a good beginning. But nothing short of open board meetings will remove deep skepticism about the taxpayer-subsidized agency. The sooner Mayor O'Malley orders an end to needless secrecy, the better.

Baltimore Development Corp. is another quasi-governmental agency that should not be allowed to conduct its business behind closed doors. It, too, takes its marching orders from the mayor's office and is financed by taxpayers.

Open government may not be as efficient as mayors would prefer, but it is better and more honest government.

Mayor O'Malley would do the citizens of Baltimore a big favor by allowing the sunshine of public scrutiny into the proceedings of BACVA and BDC. Those organizations, despite their private structures, are an integral part of how the city works.

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