If it walks like a duck

June 17, 2005

THE BALTIMORE Development Corp. is the city's economic development arm. The BDC does the public's business primarily with public funds, and its dealings should be as open to the public as any other government agency. A Baltimore judge may think the law was on his side when he ruled that the BDC was not subject to Maryland's open meetings and public information acts because it's a nonprofit corporation. But the BDC is a nonprofit corporation in name only, and perpetuating this legal fiction is a disservice to the public.

The administration of Mayor William Donald Schaefer established a network of quasi-public agencies to help redevelop the city 30 years ago, incorporating them as nonprofits and insulating them from bureaucratic red tape and rigorous public scrutiny. BDC's predecessor was among them. This newspaper didn't approve of the shadow government's methods, and it has continued to press for government transparency.

Baltimore Circuit Judge W. Michel Pierson issued his ruling last week in a lawsuit filed by nine businesses wanting access to BDC records involving a west-side development project that would put them out of business. The judge ruled against the businesses, saying that despite the BDC's very public role as the city's economic development agent, it didn't meet the legal test of a public entity because neither the mayor nor the government controlled its operations.

We beg to differ. Throughout the BDC's history and that of its predecessors, its priorities have been the priorities of the mayor, who controls the BDC through its budget. About $2.7 million of the BDC's $3.5 million budget today comes from City Hall. Without it, the corporation couldn't operate. The head of BDC, as far back as anyone can remember, has always been a mayoral choice and attends the mayor's Cabinet meetings. The mayor nominates the members of the BDC board of directors, which includes top city officials.

Judge Pierson may have relied for his ruling on the legal status of the BDC as a private, nonstock corporation with three private members. But we prefer the "if it looks like a duck" standard. A government-supported economic development agency does require some privacy to negotiate the public's business, and the state open meetings and public information laws offer such protection. But an appeals court shouldn't uphold the fiction that the BDC is a peacock, when it is very much the public's duck.

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