To follow the city's news, just follow the city's money

December 13, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

REMEMBER, Sun readers, the common link in all these incidents is the money - as in "We put it up and politicians mess it up."

For the last 10 days, we Balti-morons and Marylanders in general have noted these articles in the news media:

Our city government went to great lengths to help B&B Lighting Supply Inc., a minority firm, win a $1.1 million contract over several other firms. In recent years, the city had funneled light bulb purchases to B&B - even though it didn't have the contract - and paid far higher prices than the then-contract holder, a white-owned firm, was charging. The result: minus $40,000 for taxpayers.

A federal grand jury indicted Edward T. Norris, former Baltimore police commissioner and state police superintendent, accusing him of using $20,000 from a discretionary fund to buy gifts and meals for various women. Taxpayers, according to the indictment, had to foot the bill for the overtime paid to officers who, federal prosecutors said, provided chauffeur service for the women and Norris.

City officials - some of them the same ones responsible for the B&B boo-boo - voted to have taxpayers foot a potential $230,000 bill for attorneys to advise City Council members who are the targets of a federal investigation into their official and personal finances.

In the brightest of these sad news stories, demonstrators who objected to layoffs resulting from the school system's budget deficit raised so much hell at a school board meeting that police had to bar many from school headquarters on North Avenue.

The B&B Lighting situation shows the pitfalls of affirmative action. The attempts to help minority firms have been called "well-intentioned," but Americans familiar with our history know blacks had highly developed business districts in several cities before the advent of integration. And it was done without affirmative action. I could ask, in light of the B&B development, "Will those who support affirmative action now stop calling those of us who oppose it racists and race traitors?" but that's a "Do Rockefellers eat welfare cheese?" kind of question. Perhaps a more appropriate question is how are black taxpayers served if affirmative action costs them more money?

In the matter of Norris, whom I thought was presumed innocent until proved guilty, there is a way to save taxpayers some dough. Since Norris has already been tried and convicted in the news media, perhaps we can save taxpayers the cost of a trial and go straight to the sentencing phase. Of course, if we really want to save taxpayer dollars, we might rein in a federal government gone amok and heed those sticklers for federalism who insist the federal law under which Norris was indicted is unconstitutional. (It is.)

City Council members who should be in high dudgeon about federal investigators poking their noses into local affairs might also invoke the federalism argument, but my guess is that as liberal Democrats, they wouldn't know how to begin to make it. Perhaps a better option would be for them and other city honchos to explain why taxpayers are footing their legal fees. More than one Balti-moron no doubt feels the legal problems of City Council members fall into that vast category called "not my problem."

What is our problem is a school system that continues to operate on the Josef Stalin model. It's bad enough that employees fear reprisals if they talk about the many things wrong with this system. But the sight of police officers barring the door to what should have been a very public hearing so folks could object, and rightly so, to employees being laid off as a result of a budget crisis they didn't create was a scene Uncle Joe would have admired.

The protest happened at the school board meeting scheduled Tuesday evening. Protesters - some from the group called ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and others with no organizational affiliation - came to point the finger at those most deserving of blame for the $52 million school system deficit: the school board.

The deficit happened on the watch of most members of the current board. Those board members were supposed to watch over the folks who messed up the money. New school system Chief Executive Officer Bonnie Copeland said when the planned layoffs were announced last month that the folks who worked in the finance offices of the school system who made poor decisions have since been fired or have quit. That's small consolation to those who had nothing to do with creating the mess and have now been laid off. The financial mismanagers who gave us this budget deficit caused far more harm to this town than Norris is accused of doing. Legally, they may have done nothing criminal, but morally, they sure as heck did.

But as long as we're going to have cops barring the doors down at North Avenue, let's have them do it for the right reason. Any chance we could have police surround the building to keep school board members out?

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