Shining light on private use of city power

March 12, 2006|By STEPHANIE DESMON | STEPHANIE DESMON,SUN REPORTER

Scott Mun won't be calling the repairman to his West Lexington Street variety store.

The heating and cooling unit went on the fritz more than two years ago. But with no idea whether his Wig House will be open even six months from now, it would make no sense for Mun to spend the thousands of dollars needed to fix it. So it is giant fans in the summer and space heaters in the winter as Mun awaits a decision from an agency that has been determining his future from behind closed doors.

Deciding his fate - and the fate of so many others standing between city officials and a major redevelopment of Baltimore's west side - is the Baltimore Development Corp. The BDC functions as the city's economic development arm but has billed itself as a quasi-governmental agency, a stance that it has taken to mean it does not give public notice of its meetings or provide documents it has generated or collected as part of its business.

Mun and a group of other west-side business owners brought together by attorney John C. Murphy didn't like not knowing how decisions were being made by the BDC, with its close ties to City Hall and its budget largely financed through city coffers. They wanted to see records they thought should be public, attend meetings where they imagined their stores were discussed, see appraisals they were sure had been done to show how much their businesses were - or weren't - worth.

So they sued. And, on appeal, they won.

They sued under the state's public-records and open-meetings laws - laws typically used by journalists trying to gain access to the inner workings of government but set up for any citizen to use. It was the latest salvo in a campaign aimed at protecting the soul of the city's west side, a campaign that has dragged on for years in the media, in meetings with politicians, even in a documentary about the shopkeepers' plight, filmed in 1999, called Baltimore's West Side Story.

Maryland's Court of Special Appeals determined that the BDC - whose members are essentially chosen by the mayor - must conform to the same laws as any other government agency. "[I]n this case, public policy mandates that disclosure is in the best interests of the public," reads the ruling from January. Last week, the BDC asked the state's highest court to hear its appeal and protect the agency's meetings and documents from being scrutinized by the public.

This was a rare defeat for the BDC, which for decades has directed Baltimore's renewal and economic-development efforts - setting the stage from its largely behind-the-scenes perch for billions of dollars worth of development on the Inner Harbor and elsewhere across the city.

Ralph S. Tyler, the city's top lawyer, represents the BDC. He said the BDC is not subject to the open-meetings and public-records laws because it is "a private, not-for-profit corporation" and not a public body. He said that complying with those laws would change how the agency operates.

In the wake of the court defeat, reporters submitted public-records requests to the BDC. Those requests have been put on hold by BDC officials, who say they will wait to respond until the appeals process is exhausted.

BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie said it would probably take a full-time staffer to respond to public information requests if the agency were required to fulfill them. He said he thinks the tenor of the BDC's board meetings would be less freewheeling if the meetings were open, that discussion would be limited, and that developers might be less willing to do deals with the agency. "It would be inhibiting," he said. But, "we would survive, we'd go on. ...

"It's a very effective mechanism to do economic development," he said of the closed-door methods of the BDC. "I wouldn't suggest it to do garbage collection or water and sewer or repair potholes or a number of things traditional city agencies do. ... We're doing good work. In part, it is owed to the structure. We have a bit more flexibility. Our single client is the city, and virtually our single [funding source] is the city."

Murphy hopes the court's ruling will mean that the BDC will be forced to throw out its award of a huge block of the west-side redevelopment to a New York firm - and have to re-do the process out in the open.

"This business of not being able to get documents, it's like waking up one morning and finding a dinosaur on your doorstep - it's crazy," Murphy said. Of the ruling, he added, "It's long overdue."

Local reporters have long complained about the secrecy of the BDC, about being locked out of meetings where important decisions were being made on condemnations, on the sale of city property, on new developments. City officials would later have to affirm those decisions, but by closing the process to public scrutiny, the agency left many to wonder just what kind of backroom dealing was going on.

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