Openness counts

December 01, 2004

SOME WEST-SIDE business owners have filed suit against Baltimore's economic development agency for making decisions in secret. TouchM-i. Baltimore Development Corp. is plenty secretive - and it's not by accident. It was built that way. It isn't a city agency but a nonprofit corporation chartered by the city. This maximizes its flexibility but it also leaves BDC exempt from the state's open meeting and public information laws. In other words, BDC officials don't have to tell taxpayers much.

That tradeoff of flexibility for public accountability is a mixed blessing. The lawsuit filed on behalf of nine slated-to-be-condemned businesses argues that since the corporation is acting as a public agent, it must meet the disclosure requirements of public agencies. The city disagrees. But leaving aside the fact that the plaintiffs have a financial self-interest in this, the lawsuit raises an important issue: Why can't BDC be more forthcoming?

The question has been asked many times before. Four years ago, the General Assembly considered forcing the BDC to permit greater public access. At the time, there was some concern that BDC wasn't keeping neighborhood groups apprised of what was going to happen to Belvedere Square. The convention hotel debate caused a similar uproar several years earlier. (Remember all the ruckus that a harborfront hotel was just a casino in sheep's clothing?) And that's just for starters.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, BDC's president, argues that real estate development is different from the usual government decision-making. It involves sensitive and confidential information submitted by prospective developers. Even public bodies such as the City Council are permitted to meet secretly when real estate matters are discussed. Good points, both. But Mr. Brodie also believes BDC is otherwise a transparent operation, and in this he is clearly mistaken.

While it's true that BDC does routinely solicit input from the public (usually in the early stages of a proposed project) and certain of its actions require approval from public bodies such as the City Council and Board of Estimates, BDC too often fails to keep stakeholders - and city residents in general - adequately informed about its intentions. Just ask the west-siders. Why is BDC pursuing its patchwork, four-developer strategy for the so-called super block rather than rebid it? Nobody outside the BDC knows for sure. The rest of us, including investors who have risked millions in adjacent developments, just have to hope for the best.

Surely, BDC officials can keep the public better informed than that. Forcing BDC to act more like a city agency isn't the ideal solution. But unless it adopts a more open philosophy about its deliberations, that may be the only one available.

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