About 80 protesters - some wearing surgical masks and waving rubber rats - gathered outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse yesterday to protest foul odors, rodent infestation and other problems in the buildings housing the city Circuit Court.
Employees and union leaders, flanked by City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway and Del. Ruth M. Kirk, a Baltimore Democrat, demanded a new courthouse be built to replace the Mitchell courthouse and nearby Courthouse East. They complain that the buildings have caused skin rashes; eye, ear and sinus infections; asthma - even cancer.
"These employees are sick and tired of being sick," shouted Arthur "Pat" Kelly, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3674, through a bullhorn. "We're asking the mayor to be kind and considerate and help these employees to work."
On Tuesday, city Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson conceded that the Mitchell courthouse, which is more than 100 years old, has "hygiene issues" and might be the cause of upper respiratory conditions and allergic reactions. But he said it is not the cause of serious health problems.
"There was nothing obvious causing serious issues," Beilenson said, echoing the findings of a 2002 report.
In summer 2001, employees protested and threatened to take legal action because of alleged health problems they blamed on conditions in the Mitchell courthouse. Soon after the protest, officials began to monitor air quality, clean dirty vents and remove rodent feces and trash.
But employees say that most of those initiatives have fallen by the wayside.
In April, the concerns resurfaced when a foul odor permeated some of the building's courtrooms and hallways. City officials said it was caused by potato chip and soda stains beneath a vending machine and odors drawn from a sanitary ventilation pipe. Yesterday, J. Keith Scroggins, head of the city's Bureau of General Services, said both problems had been promptly fixed.
Conaway, whose father works in Courthouse East as the Circuit Court clerk, called on the state and city to work together to find the money to build a new, state-of-the-art courthouse. She said she will raise the issue again at next week's City Council meeting.
The feasibility of such a project, however, remains a long shot to many officials. Public works spokesman Kurt Kocher said studies have shown the project would cost $500 million or more.
Susan J. Schuder, chief of safety in the city's Department of Human Resources, appeared at Courthouse East a few hours after the protest to conduct a scheduled walk-through with Conaway and union leaders. She objected to a Sun reporter accompanying the group, and left before the walk-through took place.
Several other city employees toured the building without Schuder. Courthouse workers were quick to show them problems. Case management clerk Tershia Upshur said she had to cover her coffee cup so black "soot" from a nearby vent would not accumulate in it.
Blaine Lipski, the city's chief of building maintenance, told the workers that the building can be cleaned and other problems addressed.